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Mitt Romney raises (low) expectations in first presidential debate

4 October 2012

4 October 2012

It’s been quite a week for weird would-be national leaders. First we had Ed Miliband deliver the best speech of his life in Manchester. And, last night, Mitt Romney bettered Barack Obama in the first presidential debate.

The two men are at very different stages of their political cycles – Romney has 30 days until his election, Miliband 30 months – but they face similar challenges. And, to their credit, both approached their performances – for that is what modern political speeches and debates amount to – with verve, poise and even glimpses of audacity.

Where Miliband’s boldness came in his conception of ‘One Nation Labour’, Romney’s came in his presentation of moderation. Romney’s record in Massachusetts, when he was governor with a legislature that was 87 per cent Democrat, as he reminded the audience on several occasions, provides substance to his claim. Indeed rather too much substance for the many Republicans who abhor the health care plan he introduced, and which Obamacare has strong echoes of.

Yet, so far this campaign, Romney has too often seemed a man determined to repudiate his moderation. It was a policy that was understandable enough when he was campaigning against men like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum in the Republican primaries. But the baffling aspect of Romney’s campaign is it has ignored the conventional wisdom of moving to the centre after securing the nomination. If anything, he has moved further to the right – in choosing Paul Ryan as his running-mate, and advocating both vast increases in military expenditure and a cut in the top rate of income tax to 25 per cent. Such moves were explained by a need to ensure the Republican base turned out, a logic that ignored that the mere presence of Barack Obama on ballot papers provides motivation enough.

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Romney’s performance seemed a belated rejection of his previous approach. In his tone, and presentation of himself as both the savior of Medicare and a balanced budget, Romney’s attempted grab of the centre ground further evoked Miliband. The Romney on show in this debate shirked ostentatious partisanship but rather presented a polished pitch to become America’s next CEO.

It was certainly more effective than most had expected, with US television networks near unanimous in ‘calling’ the debate for Romney. But it lacked a real debate moment – like Bill Clinton’s memorable town hall conversation in 1992 or Ronald Reagan’s ‘Are you better off than four years ago?’ attack on Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Moreover, that there are two more debates may work against Romney. The good press of his own performance was augmented by a combination of both the low expectations surrounding Romney and the seeming passivity and stumbling of many of Obama’s interjections, which lacked the élan he displayed when bidding for the presidency four years ago.

But Romney’s display has instantly raised the bar of what people will expect from him come 16 October, the date of the second presidential debate, while expectations for Obama will lower. Moreover, if Obama really did suffer from a lack of preparation, which would be a damning indictment of his campaign, he will no longer be able to put off his homework. Certainly, Obama will not neglect to mention Romney’s 47 per cent comment or involvement with Bain Capital next time.

Such was the force with which Romney spoke that the twitterati greeted the news that he had actually spoken for four minutes less than Obama with incredulity. Yet a truly transformative night this was not – especially in the context of US election expert Nate Silver giving Obama an 86 per cent chance of winning on 6 November. Romney’s next two debate performances must surpass this, impressive as it was. But it is a paradox that having so many debates dilutes their impact, allowing the weaker debater to address shortcomings and voters to switch off; indeed, how different would the last UK election have been had there been no debates following the Cleggmania of the first?

So both Romney and Miliband can reflect that, this week, the months of preparation paid off. But ultimately the two challengers face very similar problems. For all the excellence of their performances this week, there is a dichotomy between the moderate, centrist rhetoric they employed and the actual policies they propose. And, in Romney’s case, the Democrats are about to make sure every swing state voter knows it.


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Show comments
  • EJ

    It’s “save” George, not “safe”. Looks like you’re in the minority old chum. Happy hand-wringing.

  • telemachus

    I’d go back to the wall if I were you ( if your credit card is still good)

  • telemachus

    Yes I know
    Not your goodself

  • Kevin

    Obama will not neglect to mention Romney’s 47 per cent comment or involvement with Bain Capital next time.

    …or there will be hell to pay from the liberal media that has been trying to feed him these lines for the past six months!

    Maybe he should bring up the London Olympics. That’ll do it. The empty chair pointing to all those empty seats.

  • Jebediah

    Dear me, this article and the one above show the Spectator clearly in the sycophant camp for Obama. I have nothing against or for him, as I’m British and it’s not my fight. However, try dropping the “we love Obama” crap and act like a grown up newspaper, not a love struck fanzine.

  • Jebediah

    Dear me, this article and the one above show the Spectator clearly in the sycophant camp for Obama. I have nothing against or for him, as I’m British and it’s not my fight. However, try dropping the “we love Obama” crap and act like a grown up newspaper, not a love struck fanzine.

  • Jebediah

    Dear me, this article and the one above show the Spectator clearly in the sycophant camp for Obama. I have nothing against or for him, as I’m British and it’s not my fight. However, try dropping the “we love Obama” crap and act like a grown up newspaper, not a love struck fanzine.

  • Jebediah

    Dear me, this article and the one above show the Spectator clearly in the sycophant camp for Obama. I have nothing against or for him, as I’m British and it’s not my fight. However, try dropping the “we love Obama” crap and act like a grown up newspaper, not a love struck fanzine.

  • ThereHeBloodyIs

    Whammy

  • ThereHeBloodyIs

    Whammy

  • http://www.coffeehousewall.co.uk/ Coffeehousewall

    What is going on? Why is the Spectator insisting over and over again that Miliband is on the up, and gave the speech of his life, and looks more and more statesmanlike etc etc etc. What is going on? They can’t believe it, so why are they being paid to write it? What is the agenda? Is it that the editorial staff want to get on the right side of the faction they think will be allowed to pretend to govern next?

    • EJ

      The Spectator is moving to the Left. Nelson, Forsyth, Hardman – all seem like left-leaning metropolitan bubble-dwellers who are pretty contemptuous of true conservatism. They defend Cameron because, like them, he is not a conservative. They push Labour and the Lib Dems because they’re all of the same ilk. They publish articles in favour of immigration. They ignore or denigrate UKIP. And Melanie Phillips, for some strange reason, no longer writes for them. There is an agenda here and its becoming increasingly obvious.

      • http://www.coffeehousewall.co.uk/ Coffeehousewall

        Tim Wigmore looks about 12 and writes for the Guardian. Nothing personal, but why is he invited to write for the Spectator, when there are so many gifted conservative commentators who could write a piece or two a week of much greater substance. There are too many valuable commentators here who could a good job for little that I can’t name some without unwittingly neglecting others.

        The leftward direction must be deliberate.

      • Jebediah

        Yes it’s odd. The Spectator does seem to be moving left, and quite abruptly too.

        • http://twitter.com/WholeLottaSusie Sue Ward

          And that’s why I don’t subscribe anymore.

      • Jebediah

        Yes it’s odd. The Spectator does seem to be moving left, and quite abruptly too.

      • Jebediah

        Yes it’s odd. The Spectator does seem to be moving left, and quite abruptly too.

      • Jebediah

        Yes it’s odd. The Spectator does seem to be moving left, and quite abruptly too.

  • Swiss Bob

    “Where Miliband’s boldness came in his conception of ‘One Nation Labour’”

    Does anyone with an IQ over 70 fall for these pathetic platitudes these morons spout?

    One nation from the party that wanted to ‘rub the Right’s nose in diversity’, a party/government that gormless Ed was at the centre of. Give me strength.

    • telemachus

      Miliband’s was no pathetic platitude
      He is sincere and more importantly will deliver us from Osbourne

  • Augustus

    Romney illustrates the difference between a community organizer and a man with leadership ability. Obama is obviously overmatched and out of his element. Let’s hope the American people saw the truth and realize why the country is failing. Obama has added more than five trillion to the national debt in just under four years and has produced annual trillion dollar deficits while in office. This is unsustainable and threatens total financial collapse. Much, therefore, depends on the quality of the men and women
    elected to serve in the Congress and to lead as President. As Thomas Jefferson pointed out, “The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.” This is certainly an important election. It will determine the difference between a prudent government striving to retain the treasure of individual liberty that is America, or the path to Communism with a man who was never even qualified to be its President.

  • Jez

    Bettered?
    Battered more like.
    You honestley cannot bring yourselves to the fact that, overall Obama hasn’t done anything except sanction the killing of Osama.
    Ok, i’ve just had this scrubbed from a post about two minutes ago on a previous blog entry but… but hey, let’s go for it;
    Afghanistan, Employment, Stimulus strategies, the Fast and Furious debacle, immigration in the Southern Border states adjacent to Mexico, the handling of the Arab Spring- and it’s aftermath/legacy, recently Benghazi and the US debt.
    Hollywood, the left and the US domestic and Western International liberal Left media are rabidly pro Obama and his redistributionalist (i just made that word up. Yey!) policies he’s brough through his career.
    Could there be more level coverage in the Morning Star maybe. I need to check.

  • Steerage

    Watch the British commentariat and the Conservatives at this site and in government suddenly discover they never said what they said about Romney and certainly never meant to disrespect the man who will be most welcome in London again. Sans drubbing and without anti-American sentiment.
    Hopefully he doesn’t forget and will resist the siren calls to intervene in Syria, and concentrates instead on America’s needs not Europe’s.
    A period of US isolationism will be most welcome.

  • Steerage

    Watch the British commentariat and the Conservatives at this site and in government suddenly discover they never said what they said about Romney and certainly never meant to disrespect the man who will be most welcome in London again. Sans drubbing and without anti-American sentiment.
    Hopefully he doesn’t forget and will resist the siren calls to intervene in Syria, and concentrates instead on America’s needs not Europe’s.
    A period of US isolationism will be most welcome.

    • Dimoto

      Which planet do you live on ?
      Obama hasn’t done much.
      Romney is “guided” by his loony religion (the love that dare not speak it’s name).
      He is itching to declare trade war on China, bomb Iran, massively expand US armed forces (un-bloody-believable), and make love to Netanyahu – a prime flake, even by the high flakey standards of the middle east.
      He is not Ronald Reagan, he is Barry Goldwater with added religion.
      America is in dire straits, as you say, the new president should look after America. Little chance of that with Romney.
      Whoever wins, the outlook is unremittingly bleak !

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