You know you have a die-hard interest in politics when you want to see the national presidential debate, and it becomes a major commitment just to find a place to watch. That was my case last week while I was in southern Turkey as the Turkish conflict with Syria was heating up. I had limited television options and just could not tune into one of the U.S. national networks, or even CNN International. And even if I could find a station, the time difference meant I would be watching at 3:00 am. No such stations beaming into Turkey could be found. Apparently, we are not as important in this part of the world as many in Washington think.
But when you are a political junkie like me, and both write about national events and talk about major issues facing the country on my national radio show each weekend, you give it your best shot. And thank goodness for our allies, the Brits. I took a chance, got up in the middle of the night, and found a BBC station that was carrying the entire presidential debate. Strong Turkish black coffee and some baklava to keep me up for what I anticipated to be a lively and confrontation give and take by the President and Mitt Romney.
It wasn’t long into the debate before I wondered if I was still asleep and perhaps dreaming. The President was about as enthusiastic and focused as the chair Clint Eastwood portrayed him to be at the recent Republican National Convention. And to the die-hard Republican conservatives, Mitt Romney morphed to the center, agreeing with the President on numerous issues, and confirming to many on the right what that felt all along. Old Mitt wasn’t really in their corner after all. But at this stage of the campaign, many of these conservatives still support him as the lesser of the two evils.
The Obama team tried to paint Romney as an uncaring soulless ideologue. But that dog just would not hunt. Romney time and time again calming presented himself as a moderate who would work with Democrats to find a middle ground on key issues for both sides to support. He praised the warm relationship between Republican President Ronald Regan and Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neal. (As a side note, I interviewed the former Speaker on a television show I hosted back in the 1990s. He had this to say about Reagan. “He was a real SOB during the day. But we would kick back in the evening, have a drink, and he charmed your socks off. It was hard to turn him down.”)
Romney confronted the President for not working with Republicans in congress, and pointed out that as governor of Massachusetts, he met with the democratic leadership every Monday morning. Yes, he did conveniently fail to mention that the Republican leadership in Washington vowed to oppose the President from day one. Remember Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell’s statement that: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
Still, it was a good “hit” by Romney. After all, it was a year and a half into his term in office before President Obama had a one on one meeting with House speaker John Boehner and McConnell. The bipartisanship offer by Romney sat well with a large number of independent voters watching, who were looking for a President who would “tone down” the rhetoric, and become more results oriented.
The Obama team prepared the President for a conservative ideologue, but his opponent showed up as Governor Romney. The flip flopper label was worn well comparing what Romney said in last week’s debate vs his changing positions during the primaries. This time, it was all about compassion, the middle class, and being a pragmatic president. “We’re a nation that believes that we’re all children of the same God, and we care for those that have difficulties.” He spoke of finding more teachers. And not reducing government, but making it work more efficiently. He said that “regulation is essential.” It all played to moderate independents, located in a handful of swing states.
Healthcare? Guaranteed coverage for pre existing conditions, allow children to be covered up to the age of 26, eliminate restrictions on interstate insurance sales, and subsidies for those who cannot afford healthcare. Sounds awfully much like Obamacare to me. But just change the name, and moderate independents seem willing to sign on. Flimflam? Probably. But it seems to be working.
So where was the President? He seemed otherwise engaged. On Medicare reform, Romney and Obama really offer the same numbers to make the program work. But you would not have known that from Obama’s weak defense. Social Security? Obama said: “I suspect that on Social Security, we've got a somewhat similar position.” Man, did he blow a chance to score big here. Romney’s VP pick, Paul Ryan, has proposed privatizing Social Security. Older votes don’t want it touched. So the President says that he and Romney have a similar position? He sure blew a chance to paint Romney into a corner and on the defensive.
Both candidates seemed to agree on no more deficits, lowering the tax rate but eliminating many deductions, and clean energy development. And with Obama seemingly disengaged, looking down at his notes, Romney’s forcefulness allowed him to win the day. In fact, style had a lot to do with Romney’s success. Not so much what he said as how he said it in what many believed to be a presidential way.
The third debate, on October 16th, will be strictly about foreign policy. The president will have a lot to brag about (Osama Bin Laden), but also much explaining to do considering the turmoil taking place in much of the world. Romney will have to show competence in an area more unfamiliar to him. So there are still opportunities and dangers for both candidates.
Was the debate worth getting up in the middle of the night half way around the world? Certainly. We are talking about America’s future during uncertain times. With two more debates plus a vice presidential debate to go, I’ll be watching wherever I happen to be. And thanks to the BBC. The coffee, the baklava, and your programing made my night, and allowed me to stay engaged as a concerned American.