The second debate didn’t do much to move the polls, but it continued to highlight some of the candidates’ biggest flaws.
I’m not going to refight the second debate at any length. With these debates, we are at that well-known point most meetings and conversations reach: everything has been said, but not everyone has said it. There is no excuse to say it all again interminably.
To dispense with the debate, Obama won. The polls all say it, and not even the Romney people contest it. He did not win overwhelmingly; the polls suggest by an average edge of about 4 percent among undecided voters. And he didn’t win much. My estimate is that this debate influenced about 40,000 voters in toss-up states toward Obama; 125 million people voted in 2008, so we’re talking about 0.003 percent (and I think that’s an over-estimate). Clearly the biggest, most apparent victory in debate two was Obama version two over Obama version one. And the biggest effect was probably the palpable sense of relief among his own supporters.
But the debate did provide even more fuel for further rants on four topics: the future, international issues and politics, the Republican right, and “plans.”
1. On the future. I continue to find President Obama and his team’s failure to bring together a simple, straight narrative about the economy in the last four years and America’s economic future incomprehensible. A credible narrative can be shaped, and it would work to the president’s advantage. An equally credible view of a positive future could be presented. This is not a trivial omission; presenting a view of the future that allows citizens to accept and take on hard choices is a central requirement of leadership.
2. On international issues and politics. It’s hard to avoid concluding that Governor Romney has been irresponsible in his approach to the violence in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. His grasp of the facts is weak to non-existent, his lack of understanding of the basic uncertainties involved in most of these events is deeply naive, and his sense of fundamental issues of American power and national security is, let us say, undeveloped. Not that it matters, but his political strategy is also completely wrong. Given a set of sudden and violent events about which he knows absolutely nothing, by far the best strategy is to say in a completely straightforward way that he supports the president and then shut up.
3. On the Republican far right. Governor Romney has two obvious problems in these debates and this whole campaign. The first problem is well known: he has reversed himself so completely on every major issue that to get back into the game now he has to, on the run, re-reverse himself, deny he is doing it, and somehow convince the American people that he isn’t a phony. Good luck. But an equally big problem is slightly less obvious: he is tied into knots by the positions of the Republican far right, which has never missed a chance to miss a chance. Whether the subject is taxes, spending, the social contract, abortion, immigration, or guns (neither Governor Romney nor President Obama distinguished themselves there), it is very clear that there are bright lines he is not allowed to cross. My own bet now is that President Obama will win reelection and the Democrats will retain control of the Senate — in neither case by much of a margin. In both instances, a major reason will be the revealed preference of the Republican far right to be ideologically pure losers rather than winners with a chance to govern.
4. On plans. I continue to be completely in awe of Governor Romney’s five-point “plan.” This “plan” has either set back the whole idea of a plan by at least 5,000 years or moved forward to a whole new definition of plan. There is literally nothing of substance to this “plan.” The 12 million jobs he will create is slightly on the high side of the number of jobs a normally performing U.S. economy would create in any circumstances. The tax plan is nonsense. The rest of it is at a cocktail party level of analysis. And Governor Romney continues to advocate this “plan” as proudly as ever. Why not? If he loses, the “plan” won’t matter. If he wins, it will immediately be jettisoned, and should anyone be so ungracious as to bring it up, they will be told that the Romney administration is looking to the future, not the past (a time-honored technique). So, the new rules of “plans”: always have a plan, always talk a lot about your plan, be sure your plan says nothing whatsoever, and, post-election, deny your plan ever existed.
Finally, the numbers: Nate Silver gives President Obama a 67.9 percent chance of winning, with 288 electoral votes and a 1 percent popular vote margin. Intrade is offering 61 percent odds on Obama. The Iowa Election Market is also at 61 percent. And Real Clear Politics’ forced choice gives President Obama 277 electoral votes. This election is awfully close to even.
Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team. He has also served in senior roles in the White Houses of two Democratic Presidents.