by E.C. Fish on October 8, 2012

“American history, practical math,
You’re studying hard and hoping to pass . . .”
— Chuck Berry

ISSUE OF THE WEEK — SEE? I TOLD YOU NOT TO GET OVERCONFIDENT: In what might be charitably described as an ill-advised continuation of its strategy of lowering expectations for this campaign season’s first presidential debate clear through to the spin room of the debate itself, the Obama campaign and its candidate turned in a deeply disappointing debate performance that, for a couple of news cycles anyway, managed to slam the brakes on the campaign’s momentum. While the whole question of who “wins” a presidential debate is largely an empty bit of political theater that often ends up having every bit as much to do with the actual outcome of the race as The Great Food Truck Race has to do with fine cuisine — if you don’t believe me, ask President Kerry — the ninety-minute debate session Thursday night represented a profound series of missed opportunities on President Obama’s part and a great disappointment to his supporters.

I wasn’t able to view the presidential debate on the live feed, so the first word of it I received was in the form of a text message from Spleen editor Amy Milligan that managed to sum it up better than anything I’ve read since: “Mitt’s lying his ass off, but frankly, he’s looking good doing it. Stupid people will eat it with the big spoon.” While the responsibility for Mitt Romney lying his ass off lies, as usual, with Mitt himself, the responsibility for not calling him on it early and often lies squarely with the president, who allowed whopper after whopper to pass into the collective consciousness undisputed and gave unearned momentum to an opponent who had been floundering in part because his campaign consisted largely of whopper after whopper. A mere ninety minutes of staying alert and on message could very well have damaged the Romney campaign beyond the healing powers of pandering.

As it stood, it only took a day or so for even the stupidest feeders at the public trough of political media to realize just what Mitt was serving up, put their big spoons down, and excuse themselves to wash their mouths out with something strong. Given yet another opportunity to introduce himself to the American public, Romney produced yet another Romney, choosing the occasion for his long-delayed pivot from the right to the center while still managing to fit voters’ increasing impression of him as a serial liar who will say anything if it helps him get elected. While there has been a lot of retrospective chatter trying to parlay Romney’s performance into a brilliant use of the “give ’em enough rope” strategy by the Obama campaign, it is more likely that the president has just been lucky in his choice of enemies. As it stands, he’s only lost a couple of news cycles. Another performance like this one, however, could depress his supporters into apathy.

NOW AIN’T THE TIME FOR YOUR TEARS: The damage to the president’s momentum, however fleeting it may be in the long run, might have been even more limited had it not been for the great wailing and gnashing of teeth that rose up from the supposedly liberal media immediately after the debate. While no honest reporting of the debate could have avoided the fact that Obama screwed up badly, MSNBC’s post-debate coverage prominently featured such luminaries as Chris Matthews and Ed Schultz rending their garments, with a great swath of the blogosphere following suit.

While this is in keeping with the liberal tradition of hair-shirt self-criticism, anyone who expected an appearance by Barack Obama, Fighting Man of the Left and who was startled when he didn’t emerge Thursday night hasn’t been paying enough attention to realize that he’s as much of a fictional construct as that pantomime figure Clint Eastwood had such a nice chat with down in Tampa. If we’re really honest about running Obama on his record, we should note that that record has been blocked, diluted, and regularly misrepresented by the opposition, and that his response to this has often been a needless preemptive deference to the Republicans and “the center” (which is also largely fictional).

And those on the left need to finally face the fact that Obama isn’t, really. He certainly hasn’t governed from the left, despite the right’s reflexive accusations of socialism, and he won’t if reelected. A serious consideration of the left’s role in the Democratic party, which is roughly akin to the pre-Tea Party religious right’s in the Republican, is long overdue. It is also a bit inappropriately timed, so long as the possibility of a Romney presidency still exists.

NEWS FLASH — WE MIGHT KIND OF SUCK: I think a good national soul-search is in order on the question of what it says about our political culture that Romney was able to “win” a political debate by acclimation with cheap and easily debunked lies delivered with vigor and enthusiasm. Unfortunately, good national soul-searches are kind of hard to come by these days.

REPUBLICANS COVER EARS, SING “LA LA LA LA LA”: Republican mouthpieces and the Romney campaign responded to Friday’s positive jobs numbers (featuring a 7.8% unemployment rate that officially expires the “X number of months over 8%” talking point) by announcing that those numbers were a lie purported by a conspiracy — just like evolution, climate change, reproductive biology, economics, arithmetic, and Mitt Romney’s poll numbers. This is, of course, ridiculous grandstanding, with even conspiracy theory originator Jack Welch admitting that he has no evidence whatsoever to back his accusations of corruption, but will continue to make them anyway.

It should be noted that shouting down good economic news means that the Republicans are relying on both the politics of pessimism and a rhetorical strategy right out of the Monty Python Argument Clinic sketch — “the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says” — by way of religious fundamentalism, the McCarthyite tradition, and the Bush White House (WMDs, anyone?).

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E. C. Fish is the editor and publisher of The Spleen.


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