Conventional wisdom, buttressed by significant statistical history, says that Presidential debates do not influence the candidate’s standing in the polls. So what happened this October, when President Obama’s dismal performance at the first debate caused his substantial advantage in the polls to shrink almost overnight, to the point where in some polls and some critical states he is now the underdog?
The first contributor to the Obama swoon was the laziness of his campaign in defending his presidency. Obama, David Axelrod, and David Plouffe allowed Mitt Romney to do all the work of reelecting the President. Romney had so many self-inflicted wounds in September, that his campaign was beginning to threaten Republican candidates in the Senate and the House. Obama didn’t help himself with a flat performance during his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, and it was left to Bill Clinton to energize the Democratic base and make the fundamental case to the public that Obama deserved a second term.
It’s generally thought that Obama’s desultory first debate was the second cause of his quick slump in the polls, but this misses the point. A politician shouldn’t give up eight to ten point leads in many critical state polls just because he has an off night in a debate. What is at work here is a) half of his lead or more was given to him by Romney’s terrible campaign management and his reputation as an enemy of the common man, and b) the other half of his lead was shallow and skin deep. It is the last point that matters, especially with independents, but even with Democrats. There is a basic distrust in the Democratic Party of Barack Obama, particularly among liberals, because he has so many times triangulated against them, and against basic Democratic Party principles, such as support for Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid. Combine this with the fact that Obama sounded like a liberal/progressive in the 2008 campaign, but turned out to be a conservative in office, and you have the element of betrayal brought into the picture. Millions of voters were willing to give Obama a second chance despite this betrayal, especially considering the alternative was such a palpable oligarch as Romney, but when Obama couldn’t even defend himself in public, and when he could find nothing in Romney’s debate performance to challenge, it felt like betrayal all over again.
It may seem odd that Democratic liberals, and a good many independents, should react so fiercely to the reminder that their principles have been betrayed time and again by Obama during the last four years. It is Mitt Romney, after all, who has perpetrated the ultimate betrayal, unheard of in American politics for at least a century. Romney spent two years garnering votes in Republican primaries from Republican voters who listened to his far-right platform of massive tax cuts for the wealthy, and entitlement cuts for the poor and middle class. This was all stitched together with a healthy dose of militaristic posturing when it comes to foreign policy, combined with deferential genuflection to anything Benyamin Netanyahu wanted. Suddenly, on the night of the first debate, this Romney disappeared and was replaced by moderate if not liberal Mitt Romney, who thinks the wealthy aren’t paying their fair share, and the average person is carrying too high a tax burden.
Maybe Barack Obama couldn’t face up to a politician who doesn’t just flip-flop on some issues, but who adopts a face transplant covering everything he ever stood for in the primaries. Or maybe Obama couldn’t face up to his döppelganger – a politician willing to massively betray his base in order to achieve power. Romney’s transformation was so absurd, and his lack of any basic political integrity so obvious, that even the media noticed.
The public had to notice this as well, but didn’t care. It was as if millions of voters decided they were given two choices: politician A who suddenly betrays his base and whatever is left of his political principles, or politician B who has been betraying his base and his campaign promises for four years. Which is the greater evil? Romney is the unknown evil who might actually be a moderate Republican forced to act temporarily like a Tea Party Republican in order to get his party’s nomination, whereas Obama is a known evil who threw out the single payer health insurance program he had endorsed in the campaign, who expanded Bush’s powers to kill Americans without trial, who has hounded whistleblowers in the government to a degree unimagined by Republicans, who has refused to indict and prosecute malfeasance on Wall Street, who says he outlawed torture but still found a way to incarcerate Bradley Manning in solitary confinement for several years without charging him with any crime, who said he would shut down Gitmo but did not, who promised an open administration but fights sunshine requests at every opportunity, who left Iraq only to expand the war in Afghanistan and extend it now to East Africa and Libya, who insists on the right to spy on Americans domestically as part of the prosecution of the “War on Terror”, who assiduously prosecutes medical marijuana clinics even in states where it is legal, and who drools over the possibility of a “Grand Bargain” with the Republicans wherein he will damage if not abandon Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid.
No wonder independents and Democrats walked away from Barack Obama after the first debate. It was not that they were suddenly going to vote for Mitt Romney. It was more that case that they were no longer enthusiastic about another four years of Barack Obama, having been so forcibly reminded of all the disappointments of the first four years. Many of these voters are in blue states, which are still going to give Obama their electoral votes even if all liberals sit out this election. It is in the swing states where this question of betrayal matters. Obama’s plunge has been just as fierce in these states, where he now requires the dollars and the votes of independents and liberals just to stay alive.
Why, however, do the Democrats and independents react so forcefully to betrayal, while the Republicans do not? There has not been a peep of protest about Mitt Romney’s betrayal from the spiritual leader of the Republicans – Rush Limbaugh – nor from the minions who man the conservative propaganda machine – Michelle Malkin, Ann Coulter, Erik Erickson, Rich Lowry, Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Ralph Reed, Karl Rove, or Newt Gingrich. Of course, everybody loves a winner, and things looked awfully bleak for Mitt Romney and the whole Republican Party until the first debate. Republicans, especially, when they don their brown shirts and strut about in authoritarian mode, love anyone who kicks-ass, especially when the people being brutalized are pure evil, like Democrats and liberals. And one should never discount the rampant racism in the Republican Party – giving the boot to the Kenyan Usurper has to rank high on the list of most Republican voters, especially in the South.
It is, nonetheless, remarkable that the entire Republican Party leadership and propaganda apparatus have remained completely silent on the fact that their nominee has abandoned them and their platform. The only time they have thought to tug on Romney’s coattails and rein him in a bit is when he crossed the line on the great moral litmus test of conservatives everywhere: abortion. Romney quickly had to assure everywhere he really was pro-life. All this shows either that the Republicans have no principles, other than obtaining power, and/or they understand that what Romney is doing is necessary to appeal to the independents and undecided voters. Once he steps into the Oval Office, he will be under the control of the Party’s right wing ideologues again.
We have, therefore, the bizarre spectacle of Republicans being entirely mum about the fact that the man they are about to vote for has ostensibly nothing politically in common with the Party he is supposed to represent. In the meantime, independents and quite a few Democrats, especially liberals, are acting in the opposite manner. They have suddenly turned against President Obama or are at best lukewarm about him, having lost their enthusiasm to get out the vote for him or give him money, and all because he has failed to speak up passionately in favor of the political principles they hold. One half has no political principles to speak of – or at least their candidate doesn’t – and the other half is so concerned about their own political principles being ignored or betrayed, that they are willing to see their own man go down in defeat. And remember, on the Democratic side, the number of independents and liberals who are disaffected by Obama need not be large in size or significant in terms of traditionally supporting the Democratic Party – there just needs to be enough of them in the swing states that Obama’s lock on the Electoral College suddenly is broken.
Obama could still squeak out a victory here, if only because demographics and Electoral College dynamics still play in his favor. But given where he was before the debates began, if he does win reelection, will he be chastened in any way by this experience? Liberals can only hope, but there is absolutely nothing in Obama’s performance over the past four years which suggests that hope of any sort is in order. The candidate of Hope and Change long ago abandoned both of these blandishments.
If Obama loses, it will go down as one of the classic political collapses of US presidential politics. Perhaps at that point the Democratic Party will begin to ask very serious questions about what its principles really are. Given how the rolling global economic depression appears to be reasserting itself, and that financial calamities are about to befall all the major Western nations irrespective of which political party is in power, being the party in power may not be a good thing after all. If that’s the case, anyone concerned about democracy in America ought to hope that the Democrats do not take the wrong lesson from a defeat, and begin emulating the Republicans in their wanton lust for power. The country does not need both political parties employing cynicism, hypocrisy, and deceit as a means of maintaining office.
Oh – but wait a minute. The Democratic Party already employs cynicism, hypocrisy and deceit, or at least its President does. Perhaps the best that can be expected, if Barack Obama loses, is that his party abandons his way of governance – triangulation, which boils down to beating up the party’s base so that some magical bipartisan solution to major problems can be reached. All that does is reward the Republicans for incessantly pushing the political center to the right, and it confirms the Karl Rove and Grover Norquist strategy of “starving the beast” – depriving the federal government of so much revenue because of tax cuts that inevitably even the Democrats will be obliged to shut down the social safety net.
If you don’t live in theUnited States this is all mystifying and perplexing. But if you are an American voter of any sort – Republican, Democrat, or independent – it is worse. It is positively demoralizing that the political leadership in this country is so bereft of integrity and credibility, that you have to hang your head in disgust no matter whom you vote for.