Posts Tagged mitt romney

Debate Reform

The big issue with regard to the presidential debates in 2012, and one that will engender a fair amount of discussion from the two political parties and from the Commission on Presidential Debates, is the role of the “moderators.”

Debates are always contentious of course, with very high stakes. That’s why the parties agreed to form a Commission in the first place. The bipartisan Commission has strived to create a system of organized debates that will allow the candidates to have maximum flexibility and allow the voters to judge for themselves who is best qualified to be President. That includes a variety of formats and the use of journalists as moderators.

However, the moderators in this year’s debates – Jim Lehrer of PBS, Martha Raddatz of ABC News, and Candy Crowley of CNN – have each had significant criticism for their handling of the debates. That’s nothing new, moderators are routinely criticized, usually by the losing candidate’s supporters. But the criticism this year is unusually intense. And to be honest, the moderators have earned some of that criticism.

Not many people realized that debate moderators did not have to sign an agreement abiding to the rules of engagement worked out by the Commission and signed by both presidential campaigns. It seems to me that would be a prerequisite to being a moderator. That is one reform the Commission could make, and probably will make, between now and the next presidential election year 2016.

Candy Crowley of CNN is a very nice person and a terrific journalist. But she saw her role as moderator in the second presidential debate far differently than did the Obama and Romney campaigns and the Commission staff who organized the debates. And in a moment that will now forever be in future election year “debate highlight” clips, she took it upon herself to “fact check” the presidential candidates and correct Governor Romney at a crucial point in the debate, on a crucial question – the Obama Administration’s handling of the aftermath of the Benghazi embassy attack.

The effect was to momentarily stop Romney in his tracks. Even though she later admitted that Romney’s criticism of the President was right “in the main,” it was too late – the damage was done.

It simply isn’t fair to the American people, who value these debates as their only opportunities to see the candidates together and close up in an unmediated format, for a moderator to, intentionally or not, influence the outcome of a presidential debate. Most assuredly, Mitt Romney flubbed his lines and was weak in his attack, but that weakness was aided and abetted by the debate moderator, which isn’t what anyone wants to have happen.

Come to think of it, why have a moderator at all? Lincoln and Douglas didn’t have a moderator, and those are considered the greatest debates since the Roman Republic. The Commission on Presidential Debates should consider at least one moderator-less debate, with automatic timekeeping and microphones that shut off after the candidate’s two-minute response. At least the candidates would know they were on equal footing.

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Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

This presidential election was destined to be close. It will be. We have an incumbent with shaky approval ratings, though not terrible as in 1980 or 1992, and a nervous electorate. The economy is not currently in recession, but is experiencing one of the weakest post-recession recoveries since WWII. And President Obama’s foreign policy is showing signs of completely unraveling.

But practically everyone in the political world – especially political journalists, even many of those on the right – is saying Mitt Romney will lose.

So, in that environment, he will.

In a close presidential election – as in 1976, 2000, and 2004 – voter turnout is key. Earlier this year the Republicans had an advantage in voter enthusiasm, as the weak economy and Obama Care convinced many Republicans that this was their year. And the Democratic base was depressed, for many of the same reasons.

Now the reverse is true – Republicans are depressed and Democrats are energized. The main reason for this turnaround in the last few weeks is the polls. If you average the national polls, President Obama’s lead is not huge, it averages around 3.5 points currently. But the dominant interpretation of that lead by the major media and by political pundits is that the election is basically over.

Republicans complain abut the methodology of most of the polling organizations – they say most pollsters are using voter turnout models that mirror turnout in 2008, which would give President Obama an edge in the polling sample before any survey questions are even asked. The GOP prefers Rasmussen’s polls, which use a turnout model that averages the turnout from 2008 and 2004. In those surveys, the race is either even or has the President ahead by one point.

And yet, Nate Silver, a political stats guru who writes for the New York Times, points out that some of the surveys that have the President ahead by larger margins have cell phone numbers included in their samples, which he argues makes them more credible. Silver rates the race a 3 to 1 likelihood the President is reelected.

The net effect of all of this is that the Republicans’ enthusiasm edge over the Democrats is wiped out. The “storyline” of the national media the last two weeks that the election is over could turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy – helping to dampen turnout among Republicans, and convincing the few undecided voters out there that Romney just can’t win.

Republicans, of course, accuse the media of hyping the “election is over” story because they are all Democrats and want to help reelect Obama. Undoubtedly, some of them are. But Republicans, such as Peggy Noonan, who writes a popular column for the Wall Street Journal, and Irving Kristol’s kid over at the conservative Weekly Standard, also seem to have jumped on the “Romney is dead” bandwagon.

Romney is clearly behind, though by how much is open to debate. But it’s still September. There are three presidential debates still to come. There are millions of dollars of TV advertising yet to hit. Romney may well lose – if nothing changes over the next few weeks he certainly will. But he is within striking distance, unlike McCain in 2008 or Bob Dole in 1996.

But if Republicans in Ohio, Virginia, and Florida are too depressed to get out of bed and go vote on November 6 then it will turn out that the opportunity was wasted. What will Peggy Noonan and Irving Kristol’s kid say then?

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Barack Obama: I’m Not Jimmy Carter, I’m Bill Clinton

This is one of those presidential election years in which the incumbent, by most objective standards, should not win reelection. The sluggish growth in the economy is disappointing to virtually everyone, unemployment is unacceptably high, the U.S. credit rating is headed in the wrong direction, and gas prices are significantly higher than four years ago. When the economy looks and feels like this, the incumbent generally loses (Carter 1980, Bush 1992). In fact, I’m surprised there hasn’t been more media focus on the President’s statement in February 2009 that if the economy didn’t recover in three years, his presidency would be a “one term proposition.”

Then there is the current foreign policy crisis in the Arab world, which has the potential over the next several weeks to pose a serious challenge to President Obama’s approval numbers. Whether or not one agrees with Mitt Romney’s comments this past week, events in the Middle East do not inspire confidence. Republicans are jumping all over the Jimmy Carter 1979 analogies.

But if the polls are accurate, President Obama leads the race with six weeks to go. The most crucial numbers of course are the state polls in Ohio, Florida, and Virginia. There is an amazing lack of confidence in Mitt Romney, even among Republicans. Judging from comments in a large variety of media sources in the last 10 days, no one thinks he can win.

Their complaints are familiar: he doesn’t relate well to people, he can’t criticize Obama Care because he has to defend his Massachusetts health program, he is too vague on policy details. I believe many Republicans are disappointed that he and Paul Ryan haven’t taken the Medicare/Entitlements fight more directly to the President. The Ryan VP pick was met with initial excitement, but that has waned somewhat as Romney/Ryan seems to have shrunk from that fight. The simple act of selecting Paul Ryan as his running mate made winning the fight over Medicare crucial to his chances of unseating President Obama.

And right on cue, the president is embracing the Bill Clinton legacy, hoping some of it rubs off.

It’s not over. The upcoming presidential debates represent Mitt Romney’s last chance to change the outcome. The opportunity is there. For one thing, expectations for President Obama’s performance are sky high. Everyone expects him to win. If he doesn’t, or if it’s a draw, Romney could gain ground. On occasion, the debates are game changers. After all, the presidential debates are where Ronald Reagan won the 1980 election and where George W. Bush won the 2000 election.

But if Romney is going to achieve that he will have to give the performance(s) of his life.

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