The general consensus from the right, left and middle (as those terms are defined in the U.S., not world, sense) was that Obama really messed up in the first 2012 Presidential debate. After all, Romney lied and uttered falsehoods about his positions and the President's and his own records, all over the place (1, 2, 3). (By the way, there is a difference between the two: when you tell a lie you know that you aren't telling the truth. When you utter a falsehood you may or may not know that it is.) And Obama didn't come slamming back at him. He certainly could have. He's got the style, he is a law-school graduate (Harvard no less), and he didn't need an overwhelming assortment of facts to nail Mitt to the post. Just a few would have done the job. So why didn't he?
Chris Matthews went almost apoplectic over Obama's generally non-responsive mode. Ed Schultz got depressed. My colleague William Rivers Pitt laid into Obama in his characteristically strong but literary way (4). A good friend of mine, retired teacher Ellen Diamond, put it this way:
"Watching that debate made us ill. What just happened here? Why did Obama appear meek and defensive? Why did he not bring up the 47%, the tax evasion with non-release of tax records and Cayman Island accounts? Why did he not say something to Lehrer when Romney kept interrupting and Lehrer allowed it? Why did he keep looking down when Romney was speaking, avoiding Romney's face, while Romney kept staring at him when he was speaking? This was a disaster. As David Gergen said right after the debate: "We now have a horse race. OMG. I immediately emailed Obama with a strong critique of this debate, giving specifics, and saying that if he does not go into attack mode for the next two debates, it is all over. This made me sick. It should also be noted that the meek shall not inherit the earth. He needs to man up or begin looking for a job, and, as he well knows, the job market is not so good." (Used with permission.)
So once again, why didn't he go after Mittens? Well, first of all, maybe his campaign really comes from the Bob Shrum School of Running Presidential Campaigns. When Shrum was running Kerry's campaign, one order that went out for the whole of the 2004 Democratic Convention was "don't mention George Bush." That was the George Bush of an increasingly unpopular war, of huge tax breaks for the rich, and threats to privatize Social Security. But don't mention him and by the way, don't hit back, right away and hard, at the "Swift Boat" demolition crew. And further, don't ask about or even mention the mental box that was under Bush's jacket at back-level during the second debate. Second, maybe Obama has learned nothing from the Congressional GOP being have one and only one agenda item: making him a one-term President. And so, he just wants to conciliate with opponents.
But then there's a third one, as in the title of this Commentary: he very carefully and cleverly set up a rope-a-dope trap into which Romney merrily walked. "Rope-a-dope" was a strategy worked out by the great heavy-weight boxing champion, Mohammed Ali, for use against George Foreman in the "Rumble in the Jungle," at Kinshasa, Zaire, in 1974. Ali would intermittently lie along the ropes of the ring in a defensive position and let Foreman put it all out there. Foreman eventually wore himself out and Ali won by a knockout.
Well, judging by the reaction on the first post-debate day (October 4, 2012, the day of this writing), perhaps the Obama performance was indeed all planned. First, almost before dawn broke on the East Coast a variety of sources were out in force (see below), documenting Romney's lies, falsehoods and distortions (and they may well have been lined up to do so). Second, in a speech the day after (that is on Oct. 4), a clip of which received many plays, Obama came out swinging, noting that the person up on the stage with him the evening before bore no political resemblance to the candidate who has been going about the country in campaign mode for the last year or so. Third, what better way for Obama to set the record straight than in a format in which he is in complete control, not subject to the whims of Jim "oh how you have aged" Lehrer, who also seemed to be up there as a Romney facilitator.
Fourth, if Obama had started to combat Romney on the facts, since the latter are just inconveniences for the latter, Obama would have been drawn into an endless series of he-said-he-said exchanges, which would have gotten him nowhere. Instead he got the contrast between himself "looking Presidential" (and acting and sounding it too) and smirking Romney looking like some boy debater, just waiting for the opportunity to pull out one his apparently very well-rehearsed "zingers" (none of which appeared to appear, by the way. But I didn't watch the whole thing). Obama now controls the high ground. One can just imagine the ads that will be (hopefully) appearing, contrasting the center-right positions (definitely not Tea-Party/Far Right) that Romney took last night with, on the one hand, the far-right things he said during both the primaries and the presidential campaign so far, and on the other the rather liberal things he said about, for example abortion rights, when he was Governor of Massachusetts.
One last point, about Romney's not telling the truth and changes of position. Romney lives very much in the moment. In his own mind, at any given time, he is telling the truth, as it appears to him at that moment. He sees no contradictions between a policy that he might have laid out last evening and a completely opposite one he, or his running mate, laid out at a campaign stop three days ago. As for the lies he tells about Obama and his policies, again he doesn't see them as lies. Thus arguing publicly about them does an opponent no good. Attacking Romney for what for many of us can see are indeed lies and falsehoods in one's own speeches and those of surrogates and other supporters, in settings of one's own choice and on one's own terms, can be the most powerful way for Obama to combat Romney. Further, there are two more debates coming up, plus Joe Biden having a go at Paul Ryan. Biden will not play rope-a-dope, but will come out swinging. And Ryan will be not able to lie around his attachment to his positions, which he been making very clear for a very long time.