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Mitt Romney raises (low) expectations in first presidential debate

4 October 2012

9:24 AM

4 October 2012

9:24 AM

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.

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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