Mitt Romney just can’t win.
When people say Mitt Romney is out of touch, it goes so much further than the man being rich, or having an elevator in his garage, or making a $10,000 bet with Rick Perry. It goes much further than Romney not understanding the problems of the middle class and making derisive comments directed at 47% of the population.
No, it’s deeper than that. And the evidence is sort of writ large on the internet.
Consider that Mitt Romney probably "won" the first presidential debate. I wasn’t surprised that Romney was declared the winner (I actually said he would by default). I was, however, surprised how flat Obama was. I don’t fully believe he threw the debate-- but if I were in Obama’s strategic circle and you told me he threw the debate, I’d believe you. He certainly didn’t look and act and sound like the orator we expect.
That leaves pretty much two things: either Obama really was rusty and unprepared for Mitt’s hard, fast run at the middle (wherein he more-or-less changed his position on the political spectrum in front of our eyes), or he purposefully wanted to give the appearance that he was treading water.
And, though I don’t want to weigh in on this too heavily—because there’s really no evidence he threw the debate—there are strategic reasons and upsides to doing such a thing. The first is that, the more Mitt talks, the more people perceive him wedging his foot into his mouth next to his silver spoon; and one could see how it might be effective to just let that happen and accumulate fodder for the campaign trail (more on this later).
The second is that, for Obama, any performance you give in debates two and three naturally shift the focus and momentum back in your favor. You drive the narrative. It’s almost inevitable that the media will discuss how “the real Barack Obama” showed up in the second debate, provided he simply go over the very low bar he set for himself Wednesday. Any momentum Romney had in debate one is negated in debate two, and we’re that much closer to the election.
So, there are reasons to do such a thing. I’m not saying he did it, and I’m not apologizing for his performance. But it’s silly to dismiss it as though there isn’t any strategy behind such an idea.
And that brings us back to Mitt putting his foot in his mouth, and being out of touch.
What I don’t think Mitt Romney understands—and what Barack Obama didn’t understand at the beginning of his term—is that you can have a 90-minute debate where you impress people with your parries, jousts, and pivots. You can drop all the zingers and stretched facts and policy details about the tax code you want. You can drop numbers and buzzwords and economic statistics.
You can do all that, but all some people are going to hear after the debate is over is: “He wants to kill Big Bird.”
All they’ll take away from the whole thing is, “I don’t understand that other crap. But I know Big Bird. I’m going to look smart by walking around my office water cooler and saying, ‘Did you hear about how Romney wants to do away with Sesame Street?’”
There was absolutely no reason for Romney to attack PBS and the debate moderator (and PBS employee), Jim Lehrer. It was a move where the upside was a dog-whistle to conservatives about cutting funding for public television, and the downside was a strategic catastrophe. Showing the country what it looks and sounds like when you fire someone—and allowing people to make the connection that, in the same stroke, you’re also going to put down Mr. Snuffleupagus – has way more downside than up. Even people who do care, and do understand, all the policy details Mitt dropped are going to have a good time with the internet meme that “Romney the Grouch” is against Ernie and Bert.
Two full days after the debate, and Big Bird is still a top trend on twitter. On social networking sites, doctored pictures of a foul-mouthed Elmo wielding a switchblade directed at Mitt are everywhere. People are going to trade memes and jokes on this for a week. The conversation, a mere 48 hours after the debate, is Sesame Street—not Mitt Romney’s plans for America. Debates are often remembered for that one, succinct moment or soundbite. Mitt has to understand that.
So, yes, Mitt Romney won the debate, but only to the people who are interested in the art of debating and politics. History shows us that debates are won and lost not by scorecards and pundits, but by perception; and if one of the few concrete things people walk away talking about is that Mitt Romney went after their childhood icons, that is a tainted win he cannot afford.
This blog was brought to you by: @PatrickInPublic, and the number 47.