Mitt Romney at one of his presidential campaig...
Mitt Romney at one of his presidential campaign rallies. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t think anybody could seriously disagree that Mitt Romney won the first, highly anticipated presidential debate in the US 2012 election campaign. He was sharp, on point, and seemed super prepared.

Obama had many good points, but failed to hammer them home and claim the advantage he should have had. The long rambling story telling style he adopted was a bad move and cost him time. The responses couched in that format were a terribly inefficient way of answering questions. Even the good points he did make were often lost because of his failure to make them concisely, consistently and sharply.

Think of George Bush hammering away at Al Gore with the phrase “fuzzy math.” That is certainly what viewers came away with in 2000. Al Gore had fuzzy math. Obama had a similar opportunity to nail Romney on two of his weakest points – a refusal to go into detail about his plans, and his constantly shifting positions.

He did make those points –but never capitalized on them effectively and never drove them home repeatedly. He should have had one or two catch phrases that would have stuck with the viewers, or else found concise ways to repeatedly highlight the same themes.  That never happened.

The 47%

Unlike many people, I had no problem with Obama not bringing up the 47% issue. This has been covered to death.

Official photographic portrait of US President...
Official photographic portrait of US President Barack Obama (born 4 August 1961; assumed office 20 January 2009) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Romney has been crucified in the media, and is still being hammered in the ads. The damage has been done. He damaged himself. Why now give him an opportunity to recover? He certainly would have had a million prepared answers to try to make up ground he lost, both from the disastrous comments themselves, and also from his ineffectual responses in the wake of the video’s release. This is especially so with the release of a new poll with nearly half of respondents saying the issue received too much coverage. No, I think Obama played that exactly right.

What he didn’t play right was the style of his responses.  Short, precise statements of his position, why those positions would be better for the country, and a vivid contrast immediately with Romney’s position, along with frequent reminders of Romney’s position shifts and lack of detail could have been devastating.

Whoever thought the long-winded story telling was the way to win a debate needs to be put out to pasture. If it was Obama’s idea, he needs to acknowledge that he is out of practice and needs guidance. And speaking of retirement, it is more than sad to see the (well-deserved) flak the much-respected Jim Lehrer has been getting. At 78, he should have been home with popcorn watching the debate, in preparation for a thoughtful column or commentary the following day. The debate needed a younger, more aggressive moderator to take control of the proceedings.

Supporters are claiming that Lehrer did exactly the right thing by staying out of the way entirely. If that was the aim, why bother have a moderator at all if he’s not going to keep to time, not going to keep the debate on track, not going to ask follow up questions? Why not just send the candidates out there by themselves to play bat up and catch? Viewers were not well served by Lehrer’s ineffectual approach.

Jim Lehrer
Jim Lehrer (Photo credit: wfuv)

The free-wheeling format was interesting to watch, given the rigidity of our own debates here in Jamaica. If the format is going to be more relaxed, however, with more latitude given to the moderator, it seems a shame not to use it. Sure, he would then be open to charges of excessive interference, but would it really be such a bad thing to have someone who can say “You haven’t answered the question” or “Your answer doesn’t tell the public how you will do such and such, or where the money will come from?”

Without anyone to at least ASK follow-up questions, or point out that questions have not been answered, you get the candidates talking at each other all night, without any further clarity on the issues being debated.

CNN reported that “tight” rules had been set for the debate. The moderator was to ask a question, followed by two minute answers from each candidates. The moderator would have the rest of the 15-minute segment for follow-up and discussion. That’s funny. They have no idea what “tight” rules are.

Debate Format

I actually like the format, though, which comes across much more like a debate than the tightly scripted structure we have in Jamaica with rigid time limits, and a format that severely limits the follow-ups which are essential to at least try to press the candidates on the issues.

I don’t think there’s a chance in hell however, of this kind of format ever being accepted by our local politicians. In particular the ability to ask follow-up questions (although not effectively utilized by Lehrer) would be very valuable. Each journalist asking a question in our political debates is currently allowed ONE follow up question per candidate for the entire debate. I don’t see the parties agreeing to any significant changes there.  Pin the debaters down? Point out (more than once) that they aren’t answering the questions? Real cut and thrust? Not gonna happen, although I wish it would.