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Anatomy of a Disastrous Debate Performance

by Victor Davis Hanson

PJ Media

The Romney-Obama debate was bizarre for so many reasons. Usually spin masters needle the media immediately to “prove” that their so-so candidate won. But after this debate, almost no one made the argument that Obama was close to winning — so great was the risk for even a toadying media to look ridiculous and so clear-cut the ineptness of the president.

Instead, the eventual spin veered to why Obama lost (e.g., altitude, a supposed tranquilizer, a supposed mysterious Kleenex for Romney, a national security crisis, etc.) and was the stuff of fantasies. And when a candidate does poorly, usually his supporters look to the bright side, in worry about their favorite’s crushed spirits, and hope in the days following the setback that perhaps their optimism might revive him. But on this occasion, the Left went nearly ballistic, in blaming Obama more than Romney for letting them down, as if a Bill Maher[1], Michael Moore[2], Andrew Sullivan[3], or Chris Matthews[4] had been personally betrayed, sold out, or even played for suckers, as if they were to admit something like “we at least expect you to show up when we do so much to cover for you.”

While losing debaters often can post facto snipe about the slickness of their successful opponent, I can’t remember a disappointed loser replaying and reconfiguring the debate over the next few days on the campaign trail, in the weird fashion Obama has been offering teleprompted counter-arguments that he could never muster on his own during the actual faceoff. The classic blowhard, after all, is the loud blusterer, who always retells his own arguments and run-ins from the perspective of his own genius, thereby offering the embarrassing proof that he regrets just how poorly he was outfoxed and outargued without a script.

The common denominator here is the old story of the vast gulf between the reality and mythology of Barack Obama. Although Obama had sometimes shown some of the smarmy cool and set-speech fluidity of a John Edwards, otherwise there was never much evidence that Obama had ever excelled in debate or repartee — perhaps explaining why he wisely had consented to the fewest press conference and one-on-one Q-and-A press sessions of any recent president. His reliance on the teleprompter[5] has no recent presidential parallel, but was always wise even for the briefest of appearances. And yet even here, the chameleon-like set-speeches quicklybecome monotonous[6] and the faux cadences jarring rather than clever.

Obama’s real preferences are instead for brief puff appearances on favorable, celebrity TV and radio shows[7] that tend to enfeeble rather than sharpen his own analysis. And even those are rare, given his propensity to offer gaffes (in this regard, the “you didn’t build that” and “the private sector is doing fine” sort are as frequent as or more common than the far more notorious fare[8] from Joe Biden[9]). In such an attenuated career, we forget that Obama’s prior debate appearances have been rare, and against undistinguished debaters in group fashion during the Democratic primary and John McCain, and, in fact, were themselves largely just workmanlike and just enough to get by. His real and only political interests (and skills) are in caricaturing opponents, in a sort of trash-talking sports fashion (“you’re likeable enough, Hilary,” “fat-cat banker,” “corporate jet owner,” the limb-lopping, tonsil-pulling physicians, etc.) or in whipping up a crowd (“get in their faces,” “gun to a knife fight,” “punish our enemies,” etc.)

Yet perhaps the reason for Obama’s reluctance to face questions and counter-argument was not just that Obama is not very good at it and resents doing his homework (“a drag”), and not just that his economic and foreign policy records are dismal and would be hard to defend under scrutiny, but largely that he has had scant need to work on debating or sharpening his analytical skills — given the investment of the media and popular culture in his success.

An often distracted and diffident Obama has astutely understood that his own fortunes were in some strange way a referendum on the liberal sensibilities of legions of neurotic but influential elites[10]. That realization had excused him from much of the mundane worries of other politicians — almost as if problematic things like polls, government statistics, laws surrounding lay-off notices, or controversies (from Fast and Furious to the Libya consulate disaster) would all be properly adjusted by others more interested in his success than he in his own.

How else could he be so recklessly careless in his effusive praise of the odious racist Rev. Wright, or so patently insincere in his demagogic and racialist rants[11] before largely African-American audiences? How else could he simultaneously demonize the Bush anti-terrorism protocols while embracing or expanding nearly all of them, or so clearly provide his own arguments (e.g., deficit will be cut in half, if he hasn’t solved the problem, he would be a one-term president, etc.?) against himself?

Does all this mean that Obama cannot bounce back a bit in the next two debates? Not really.

Expectations have changed after the greatest audience in the history of presidential debates saw a veritable empty suit — or empty chair[12] — on stage, without a helpful media follow-up question, or a “make no mistake about it” refrain to be had. Over 60 million[13] now expect little at all from their president in the debate, so Obama will benefit from dismal expectations by just showing up as the incumbent and being addressed as “Mr. President.” The pressure on Romney to be even more impressive mounts. The realization that another rant by a liberal commentator could cement the reputation of Obama as an incompetent and add to the image of a hopelessly inept president will temper post-debate media anger. The moderator cannot afford to be laissez-faire in the fashion of Jim Lehrer, and will prove far more partisan. The media pressure to discount the importance of the debates[14] themselves will increase.

But despite all that, the nation has now seen that the conservative critique of Barack Obama — fluff without substance — was frighteningly accurate[15].

Also read:

Why They Love Osama and Hate Obama, and How Obama Uses the Same Tactic at Home”[16]


URLs in this post:

[1] Bill Maher: http://newsbusters.org/blogs/noel-sheppard/2012/10/06/maher-debate-it-looks-obama-took-my-million-and-spent-it-all-weed
[2] Michael Moore:http://www.washingtontimes.com/blog/watercooler/2012/oct/4/picket-michael-moore-obama-what-happens-when-u-pic/
[3] Andrew Sullivan: http://pjmedia.com/instapundit/152633/
[4] Chris Matthews: http://freebeacon.com/chris-matthews-in-post-debate-meltdown/
[5] the teleprompter: http://moelane.com/2012/10/05/rsrh-breitbart-com-asks-wi-dems-whether-obama-should-have-been-allowed-a-teleprompter/
[6] become monotonous: http://www.mediaite.com/online/obama-caught-using-the-exact-same-line-when-talking-to-multiple-foreign-leaders/
[7] favorable, celebrity TV and radio shows:http://hotair.com/archives/2012/08/19/team-obama-people-entertainment-tonight-equally-important-to-wh-press-corps/
[8] far more notorious fare: http://freebeacon.com/top-five-biden-race-gaffes/
[9] Joe Biden: http://dailycaller.com/2012/10/05/joe-biden-cant-wait-to-raise-taxes-some-more/
[10] legions of neurotic but influential elites:http://www.americanthinker.com/2012/10/how_the_liberal_media_ruined_obama.html
[11] demagogic and racialist rants:http://pjmedia.com/eddriscoll/2012/10/02/observation-can-become-an-intervention/
[12] or empty chair: http://pjmedia.com/instapundit/152892/
[13] Over 60 million: http://www.commentarymagazine.com/2012/10/05/debate-ratings-show-obama-picked-the-wrong-night-to-flop/
[14] to discount the importance of the debates: http://newsbusters.org/blogs/tim-graham/2012/10/06/producer-amazed-historian-thought-romney-would-win-then-later-asked-if-h
[15] was frighteningly accurate: http://pjmedia.com/instapundit/152976/
[16] “Why They Love Osama and Hate Obama, and How Obama Uses the Same Tactic at Home”:
http://pjmedia.com/barryrubin/2012/10/04/why-they-love-usama-hate-obama-and-how-obama-uses-the-same-tactic-at-home/

©2012 Victor Davis Hanson

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About victorhanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture. He recently published an historical novel The End of Sparta (2012), a realistic retelling of Epaminondas invasion and liberation of Spartan-control Messenia. In The Father of Us All (2011), he collected earlier essays on warfare ancient and modern. His upcoming history The Savior Generals(2013) analyzes how five generals in the history of the West changed the course of battles against all odds. He was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 and the Bradley Prize in 2008. Hanson, who was the fifth successive generation to live in the same house on his family’s farm, was a full-time orchard and vineyard grower from 1980-1984, before joining the nearby CSU Fresno campus in 1984 to initiate a classical languages program. In 1991, he was awarded an American Philological Association Excellence in Teaching Award, which is given yearly to the country’s top undergraduate teachers of Greek and Latin. Hanson has been a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, California (1992-93), a visiting professor of classics at Stanford University (1991-92), a recipient of the Eric Breindel Award for opinion journalism (2002), an Alexander Onassis Fellow (2001), and was named alumnus of the year of the University of California, Santa Cruz (2002). He was also the visiting Shifrin Professor of Military History at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland (2002-3). He received the Manhattan Institute’s Wriston Lectureship in 2004, and the 2006 Nimitz Lectureship in Military History at UC Berkeley in 2006. Hanson is the author of hundreds of articles, book reviews, scholarly papers, and newspaper editorials on matters ranging from ancient Greek, agrarian and military history to foreign affairs, domestic politics, and contemporary culture. He has written or edited 17 books, including Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece (1983; paperback ed. University of California Press, 1998); The Western Way of War (Alfred Knopf, 1989; 2d paperback ed. University of California Press, 2000); Hoplites: The Ancient Greek Battle Experience (Routledge, 1991; paperback., 1992); The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization(Free Press, 1995; 2nd paperback ed., University of California Press, 2000);Fields without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea (Free Press, 1996; paperback, Touchstone, 1997; The Bay Area Book reviewers Non-fiction winner for 1996); The Land Was Everything: Letters from an American Farmer (Free Press, 2000; a Los Angeles Times Notable book of the year); The Wars of the Ancient Greeks (Cassell, 1999; paperback, 2001); The Soul of Battle (Free Press, 1999, paperback, Anchor/Vintage, 2000); Carnage and Culture (Doubleday, 2001; Anchor/Vintage, 2002; a New York Times bestseller); An Autumn of War (Anchor/Vintage, 2002); Mexifornia: A State of Becoming (Encounter, 2003),Ripples of Battle (Doubleday, 2003), and Between War and Peace (Random House, 2004). A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War, was published by Random House in October 2005. It was named one of the New York Times Notable 100 Books of 2006. Hanson coauthored, with John Heath, Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom (Free Press, 1998; paperback, Encounter Press, 2000); with Bruce Thornton and John Heath, Bonfire of the Humanities (ISI Books, 2001); and with Heather MacDonald, and Steven Malanga, The Immigration Solution: A Better Plan Than Today’s (Ivan Dee 2007). He edited a collection of essays on ancient warfare, Makers of Ancient Strategy (Princeton University Press, 2010). Hanson has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, International Herald Tribune, New York Post, National Review, Washington Times, Commentary, The Washington Post, Claremont Review of Books, American Heritage, New Criterion, Policy Review, Wilson Quarterly, Weekly Standard, Daily Telegraph, and has been interviewed often on National Public Radio, PBS Newshour, Fox News, CNN, and C-Span’s Book TV and In-Depth. He serves on the editorial board of the Military History Quarterly, and City Journal. Since 2001, Hanson has written a weekly column for National Review Online, and in 2004, began his weekly syndicated column for Tribune Media Services. In 2006, he also began thrice-weekly blog for Pajamas Media, Works and Days. Hanson was educated at the University of California, Santa Cruz (BA, Classics, 1975, ‘highest honors’ Classics, ‘college honors’, Cowell College), the American School of Classical Studies, Athens (regular member, 1978-79) and received his Ph.D. in Classics from Stanford University in 1980. He divides his time between his forty-acre tree and vine farm near Selma, California, where he was born in 1953, and the Stanford campus.

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