Day -32: The Etch-a-sketch debate

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Last night’s debate was a remarkable illustration of Romney’s Etch-a-Sketch campaign. Romney, able now to directly address millions of Americans on the same stage with President Obama, was simply able to walk away from almost everything he has campaigned on for the past six years. It was ugly, frustrating and Romney has been able to do it over and over — in Massachusetts, during the Primaries and now in the midst of the general election.

The most breathtaking part of the evening however was that Barack Obama let him.

To watch the debate, I spent the evening rubbing shoulders with the people of Tech for Obama — the mixture of technologists, start up founders and venture-capitalists who make up Boston’s technology hub. The feeling from that group was an earnest desire for a second Obama term — and a sense of complacency that Romney’s gaff-prone campaign was on its last legs.

After the debate, I don’t think many Obama supporters have this view.

At the debate, Romney was successfully able to “re-set” his campaign narrative after two or three weeks of troubles.

And if there’s one thing the media in the USA doesn’t like is a stale narrative. Robert Wright from The Atlantic Magazine wrote:

The essential property of the new narrative is that it inject new drama into the race, which means it has to be in some sense pro-Romney. This can in turn mean finding previously unappreciated assets in Romney or his campaign, previously undetected vulnerabilities in the Obama campaign, etc. The big question is whether the new narrative then becomes self-fulfilling, altering the focus of coverage in a way that actually increases Romney’s chances of a victory. And that depends on the narrative’s exact ingredients.

The new narrative, said Wright, will likely be:

  1. Romney has a previously undiscovered sense of humor!
  2. Sudden and unexpected foreign policy switcheroo!
  3. Suddenly it’s Obama who seems off balance and gaffe-prone!
  4. Romney surprisingly good in presidential debates!

I think we’ve seen at least two of these three — the sense of humour, the “surprising good debater” and probably an “off-balance Obama” (although its mainly being said that Obama was “flat” last night).

There were a few things that stuck out for me last night.

Firstly, Romney’s carefully scripted use of the term “trickle-down government” to replace, presumably, the well-worn “big government” bogey. I predict that we will see this term used in Australia soon if it catches on in the USA. It is a clever term that speaks directly to the Tea Party, small-government types. It’s a “magic word” (we would call it a dog whistle in Australia). To progressives, it’s meaningless.

Secondly, Obama really missed some opportunities to rebut or drive home some of the lies and falsehoods that Romney spouted. This was the biggest story amongst progressives. There is a palpable disappointment that Obama wasn’t more on the front foot.

I’ve been asked by people in Australia whether the debates matter.

They do. Because they drive the media reporting. Romney hasn’t been able to break out of a vicious cycle for two or three weeks after his 47% video. This became self-reinforcing. Now he’s been able to re-set the media debate — and this means two things:

  1. It will enthuse his supporters, who may become more active now they have a renewed hope that he can win.
  2. It may dampen the enthusiasm of Obama supporters.

The enthusiasm is crucial in US elections because voting is voluntary. Without engagement, interest or “momentum”, lots of supporters may simply stay home.

What this debate shows is that the election is far from over, and people who thought — like many in Australia or at the Tech for Obama event — that it was smooth sailing for Obama for the next month, this debate should be a wakeup call.