As an ordinary sane citizen, not much interested in politics, I brought considerable anxiety to the task. I knew the debate would be wonkish and conducted within very narrow boundaries. I'm not a wonk, and have a low threshold of boredom.
I vaguely thought I should do some debate preparation myself ? try to raise my political libido some; but all I actually did was browse the election issue of Mad magazine while waiting for a train at Penn Station.
What follow are therefore the reactions of a not-very-engaged citizen trying sluggishly to do his duty as a patriot and a voter by listening with attention to this first presidential debate.
Format. The single-moderator format worked well. The types I hang out with had told me that Jim Lehrer is an average media leftie who would spin the thing to Obama's advantage as much as he could. I didn't see anything like that. He put plain, short questions and let the candidates talk.
Style. Both men were confident and articulate, far more so than you or I would be in that setting, even given the weeks of rehearsal both have been going through. Politics is a craft, and these are two superior craftsmen.
Romney's weakest style point is his smile, which looks forced. He needs to work on some different facial expressions, just for variety: a brief frown now and then, a look of doubt at what the other guy's saying.
With Obama it's the verbal tics: the strategic stutter, the clipping of a vowel when it ends a sentence, the folksified dropping of terminal "g" in a gerund, combined with nasal plosion where possible: "Get'n' things done . . ."
Small stuff, though: nothing as colorfully weird as Al Gore's sighs or Jimmy Carter's putting verbal periods in the middle of sentences ("It is a crisis. Of confidence it is a crisis. That strikes at the very heart. Of our national will . . .")
The National Question. Not mentioned. Not a word. Immigration? Citizenship? Refugees? Borders? Quotas? Not a peep. Presumably at least some of this will come up in later debates. If not, the debates are an utter swindle.
Education. Both candidates expressed enthusiasm for education. I suppose this plays well with voters.
Romney also boasted of Massachusetts schools, whose superior results he would like us to think he had something to do with. Possibly he did: but I'd guess the higher-than-average proportion of non-Hispanic whites in the state's population is the key factor (Massachusetts 76.4 percent, U.S.A. 63.4 percent).
Neither candidate mentioned No Child Left Behind, the previous ? I mean, before Race to the Top ? education panacea, now regarded with embarrassment by everyone, as Race to the Top will be five years from now. Nor did either tell us why we should spend more on schools when we already spend more per pupil than any other OECD nation except Switzerland.
The Economy. Bowles-Simpson came up several times. I thought there was an opening there for Romney to ask Obama why he'd shelved the report. Possibly the Governor had gamed this in his rehearsals and there is some Obama counter he's vulnerable to . . .
He got in his best riposte in one of the economy segments. Obama made much of the two point something billion in tax breaks given to oil companies; Romney countered with the ninety billion Obama had spent on futile green energy initiatives.
Most of the talk about the economy was brain-freeze wonkery, though. "Ninety-seven percent of small businesses are not taxed at the fifteen percent rate . . ." I was popping No-Doz at this point. (The two numbers there may have been the other way round: hard to read my notes here.)
Healthcare. I struggled with this, too. My fatalistic conviction is that we shall end up with a single-payer plan, when everyone has gotten fed up with the ballooning paperwork and phone calls and denials of service.
Romney said nice words: "The private market and individual responsibility always work best." He had also said, though, that he'd oblige insurers to take on customers with pre-existing conditions. How is that insurance? You insure against acquiring conditions. Romney's distorted the "private market" right there. But that of course is what people want.
Role of government. Obama: "The first role of the federal government is to keep the American people safe." Sure, a country needs defending; but said like that, it sounds awfully Nanny State-ish. And perhaps keeping our lives, property, and welfare systems safe from illegal foreign hoodlums and moochers should be in there somewhere? Never mind.
Then: "Ladders of opportunity . . . gateways [it may have been 'gangways'] of opportunity . . . 100,000 math and science teachers [again] . . ." Translation: lots more public-sector jobs! More unionized cannon fodder for my party!
Romney: The Declaration, the Constitution . . . Then off into education again. "Making college affordable." I braced myself for the stupid line about stapling green cards to foreign Ph.D.s, but he spared us this time.
Governing. Romney was good here, talking about how he'd got stuff done as Governor with a legislature dominated by the other party.
Obama complained that congressional Republicans wouldn't let him get things done, but it sounded peevish against Romney's breezy managerial can-do. Then more about "ladders of opportunity." I guess "bridge to the 21st century" has passed its sell-by date.
Closing statements and scenes. Obama spoke about his faith in America ? I guess the faith that somehow survived 20 years of sitting in the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's pews hearing about "white folks' greed runs a world in need" and the rest.
Romney . . . sure has a lot of kids. I didn't see the Obama girls ? did the President miss a trick here? Perhaps they were doing their homework, climbing those ladders of opportunity. Come on, Barack, we need a Harvest God here, a fertility symbol. No, we really do.
John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him. He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. His writings are archived at JohnDerbyshire.com.
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