I still find it difficult to believe that Barack Obama will lose this election. I’ve said all along that he might lose, but in my heart, I’ve always felt that won’t happen. Nothing has changed in that regard. But now, perhaps for the first time, I can at least envision the possibility. You can thank the Debacle in Denver for that.
Before turning our attention to the President, let’s look for just a moment at that other guy. In my family, the debate itself has led to an even more robust post-debate argument about what to make of Mitt Romney’s performance. There are those in the family who think that “Romney won on style, but lost on substance.” (I’ve read on-line commenters say the same thing.) They point out that “he had to resort to lies” in order to make his points, and that “lying is much worse than simply giving a lackluster effort.” Further, I was told that “there is something wrong with our country when politicians can lie repeatedly during a debate and nobody seems to care.” You get the idea. They are saying the same thing about Romney that most commentators said about Paul Ryan after his Convention speech: any points he might otherwise have scored were outweighed by his willingness to lie or deceive on multiple occasions.
I don’t see it that way. I actually was impressed by Romney’s performance. Was it honest? Of course not. Romney is not an honest politician. Then again, honest politicians are about as rare as the Red Wolf. Seriously, if you like your Presidential candidates to tell the truth, then write-in Walter Mondale. He told the truth about taxes – and won precisely one state. As Jack Nicholson would say, Americans “can’t handle the truth.” They want hopeful spin, when it comes to rhetoric, and best-case scenarios, when it comes to projections. It’s sad, but it’s reality.
Truly-honest, yet successful politicians are too much to ask for. The best we can hope for is a politician who lays out a consistent, heartfelt vision. That’s what someone like Ronald Reagan gave us. Or Teddy Kennedy. That’s what has been sorely lacking from Mitt Romney. And yes, it makes him a MUCH less attractive candidate, because nobody could possibly guess the overarching principles of his Presidency if he were lucky enough to win the election. I sometimes wonder if even Romney knows how he would govern. I really see him much like Robert Redford’s character in “The Candidate,” who after winning the election, famously looked at his political consultant and said “What do we do now?” Democracies deserve better candidates than that.
But that is not to criticize Romney’s debate performance. Yes, he lacks vision. Yes, he makes most chameleons look inflexible by comparison. But those were givens. On Wednesday night, he showed up energized, articulate, gracious (and even funny at times), and he enunciated an approach that was downright centrist. Would you have been happier if he had maintained the hard-right rhetoric that won him the primary? Not me. I was heartened to hear that “Governor Mitt” was back, if only for one night, because if he does win, I’d like to believe there is at least an outside chance he would govern more like George H.W. Bush, or for that matter George Romney, than Rush Friggen Limbaugh, wouldn’t you?
The times I was most bothered by Romney on Wednesday night weren’t when he was too moderate, but when he was too conservative – like the shot he took at Obama for spending excessive amounts on green energy projects. I might feel differently if I were convinced that Romney was a right wing ideologue who was pretending on Wednesday night to be someone he is not. The truth, though, is that with Romney, everyone knows that he is less of an ideologue than a professional actor. He just wants the CEO role – whether it’s over a business or over the U.S. Government. And when he gets that role, he wants to be “successful” – which, for him, means, in the case of the business world, making money, and in the case of the government world, producing positive economic and educational data. In that sense, he’s not a whole lot different than “the New Democrat” and “Welfare Reformer” Bill Clinton, except that Romney happens to have the misfortune of being part of a political party that is generally controlled by cavemen and fascistic blondes. It makes no sense to revere Clinton and loathe Romney. One is just a whole lot luckier – and a fair amount more politically talented – than the other, but morally, I don’t see a world of difference between them.
Barack Obama is different. He does seem to have a clear ideological center of gravity, which is progressive. He hates to lie or deceive. He enjoys thinking through things, rather than giving glib responses to important questions. And he is not interested in phony, back-slapping relationships, but would rather spend time with people whom he cares about and who care about him. In short, perhaps even more than winning elections, he wants to live as a moral exemplar and the epitome of class. That is why, unlike Romney or the post-Lewinsky Clinton, he has been deeply revered by a wide swath of the American population.
There was a time when I was buying the Kool-Aid. And I don’t apologize for that either. Obama has a ton of assets, and we progressives were right to be desperate for a leader in the White House who shares our own vision. But, the key word in that last sentence is “leader.” And Obama showed us on Wednesday night, yet again, that when it comes to leadership, he often falls short.
Here’s the problem. If Barack wanted to run a mediation agency, perhaps he would have been the man for the job. But he wanted to be President of the United States. And that’s a much tougher gig. To be effective, you must bring each of the following to the job:
You’ve got to be willing to back-slap leaders of both parties – and you’ve got to make them think you enjoy it!
You’ve got to be able to think on your feet, because you will be running one meeting after another during which you will be called upon to make decisions on the spot.
You need to be at least as gutsy as you are smart.
You’ve got to be willing to street-fight – which means getting your hands dirty in the process.
You’ve got to be a bit Machiavellian. It doesn’t matter so much if they love you, but they had better fear you.
And most importantly, you’ve got to act like your country is more important to you than your self-image or your happiness. (See the point about street fighting.)
Yeah it’s nearly an impossible job. Why do you think just about no sane person wants it? But it can be done, even in the modern era. Clinton, for all his moral failings, was pretty good at it. So was Reagan. Barack? He’s had his moments – nailing Bin Laden, for example, was quite a feather in the cap. But Wednesday night? That was Barack at his worst. Risk-averse to the nth degree, unwilling to get his hands dirty, incapable of making quick decisions or even marshaling thoughts quickly, and acting like someone who was personally inconvenienced by the task at hand.
They used to call Governor Al Smith “The Happy Warrior.” Well Barack, on Wednesday night, was “The Aggrieved Professor.” That’s the last image you’d want a Presidential candidate to have.
On Thursday, he was back in his comfort zone – on the political stump in front of his trusted teleprompter. He had more hop in his step. His voice was lifted. His words were pointed. He was back! Or was he? You see, Thursday’s performance rang hollow, because he was saying exactly what he needed to say … only he was saying it a day late. And you didn’t have to be a Republican to cry foul.
My friends, we have debates so that candidates can’t hide behind teleprompters (which permit them to voice other people’s words) and shallow rhetoric, but actually must face their opponent, look them in the eyes, and logically refute their opponents’ statements. Barack was too arrogant to look his opponent in the eyes. And for whatever reason (maybe cowardice, maybe lack of preparation, maybe both), he couldn’t squarely refute many of his opponent’s sharpest attacks. Sadly, Barack had to wait until after his opponent no longer had the chance to respond to him before he was willing to fight back.
Sorry, my fellow progressives. Score one for Romney. Full stop.
For the most part I am proud of my fellow progressives in fessing up to the massacre on Wednesday night. Chris Matthews was particularly strident in taking Obama to task. Good for Matthews. The truth is that much of the hell we’ve experienced these past four years was inevitable, as Clinton said in Charlotte, because the Republicans gave Obama a rotten hand. But Obama has brought a lot of it on himself, and it is time that Democrats stop making excuses for him and blaming all of our problems on the Republicans. The idea that Wednesday night wasn’t Obama’s fault – he just wasn’t expecting Romney to lie so much – is maddeningly stupid. The idea that Wednesday night wasn’t Obama’s fault – in a racist society, black men can’t afford to fight back – is offensive. A more talented politician, black or white, would have cleaned Romney’s clock on Wednesday night. All he had to do was point out Romney for the chameleon that he is … and do so with gusto. Why is that so difficult?
Yes, I expect Obama to wake up and do better in the next debate. Yes, I expect the American voter to realize the fundamental truth about this campaign – that Mitt is a political chameleon, and the problem with such animals is that when we vote for them, we can’t possibly have any confidence in what we’re voting for. Yes, I expect that Barack will win because he has figured out a way to make most people like him.
But there was something lost Wednesday night – the chance for an out-an-out landslide. And the great thing about such a landslide is that it would have provided Barack perhaps his only chance left to bring the GOP oppositions to the table after the election. Of course, he would still need to learn a little Machiavelli. Had Machiavelli watched Wednesday night’s performance, he would have been rolling over in his nasty little grave.