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My 5:30am #debatenight thoughts: A win is a win, even when your opponent secures it for you

27 Sep

 

debatenightPostscript: Perhaps a better way of summing up the Clinton/Trump debate is to say that she didn’t do much to reduce her unfavourable while Trump did a lot to increase his…. 

Here are a couple of random, even disconnected, thoughts on tonight’s U.S. Presidential Debate, posting at approx 5:30 am (Irish Time).

The first is just how shockingly poor Trump’s performance really was. While many pundits were predicting that he would do badly, especially as news emerged of how little debate prep he was doing,  I hadn’t imagined it would be THAT bad.

Trump is a guy who should be most comfortable in front of the TV cameras. He has spent years as a reality TV star, surely he had learned some understanding of how the medium works.  Yet, as we saw from his constant interruptions, his snorting and sniffling and his awful reaction shots in the split screen segments, he seemed the least comfortable of the two in that environment.

To be fair to Trump, he did have a moderately good opening segment. He made it clear from the outset that he was set not only to bring the fight to Hillary Clinton, but to paint her as the ultimate political insider, but he never developed his narrative beyond that opening twenty minutes.He fared best when he offered solutions, the problem is that he spent most of the debate just reciting the problems.

As the debate went on it was soon clear that he had not prepared and that he was just recycling his standard Trump Rally material. His strategy, in so much as he appeared to have one, seemed to be to just play to his own existing voter base and ignore swing voters.

That is not a winning strategy when the race seems to be so close – well, close in terms of national vote, not quite so close in terms of the electoral college – but especially so when the candidate seems so prepared to rise to Clinton’s bait each and every time.

Hillary’s attack lines were so obvious that he and his team must have anticipated them and devised key responses and arguments that would allow him to pivot the debate back to her obvious weaknesses – yet they never came. The best he could come up with was a crude bait-and-switch, but for most of the time he not only accepted the premise of Hillary’s remarks – on his taxes, his attitude to race issues and his comments on women – he then repeated and expanded on them.

While Hillary helped him implode, most of the credit goes to him. He had too made unforced errors… such as he denial that stop and frisk had been declared unconstitutional – even contradicting the moderator when he stated clearly that it was… or his lethal throwaway “That’s because I’m smart” comment when Hillary wondered if he had paid no federal taxes. He has made his temperament and his credibility, real election issues, in a way that the Clinton had failed to do before tonight.

While Clinton clearly had a good night and did win the debate, she did not say or do enough to deal with her big unfavourables. She still lacked passion and never really addressed the accusation that she is a Washington insider, an establishment figure disconnected from the real America which feels disillusioned and ignored – something I explored here on Broadsheet.ie.

The question is whether her winning the debate will move the poll numbers for her. In the past the winner of the first debate has managed to secure a small post debate bounce . In all likelihood she will do so now, which begs the question can she secure that bounce and hold on to it.

I suspect, as the campaign progresses that she will gradually edge more swing voters to her cause, though they will probably go to her more to stop Trump that to push Clinton – but a win is a win, even when it is your opponent who secured it for you.

ENDS

Shameful… @realdonaldtrump’s dog whistle politics

27 Jun
pulse-nightclub

Pulse Nightclub, Orlanda

This piece first appeared two weeks ago on Broadsheet.ie in the aftermath of the appalling events in Pulse nightcub in Orlando, Florida- link: broadsheet.ie/2016/06/13


When faced with a massive tragedy the natural inclination of most democratic political leaders, from across the spectrum, is to put partisan politics aside for a time and stand together in solidarity and grief.

Campaigns are put on hiatus, genuine political differences are temporarily put aside while the country mourns and tries to cope with the enormity of what has befallen it.

It is what happened in the wake of recent terrorist attacks in France and in Belgium and countless times in the USA in the aftermath of yet another mass slaying of innocent victims.

Yet, last night, even before the names and details of the 50 men and women callously slaughtered in the Pulse Nightclub in Orlanda had been released, the Republican Party’s presumptive candidate for the U.S. Presidency chose to take the other route, going was online to whip up anger and score political points off the worst instance of US domestic terrorism.

Within minutes of the news emerging, Trump took to Twitter to express his commiserations and grief saying: Horrific incident in FL. Praying for all the victims & their families. When will this stop?. He was expressing a sentiment shared by countless millions learning the news of the horrific homophobic attack.

But Trump could not leave it there. Within the hour he was back to acknowledge the messages he had received from his supporters. Now his focus was not on the yet unidentified Orlando victims and their families: he was shifting it back on him.

His tweet began: Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism…”. One hour out of the spotlight was too much for him to handle. Donald the Ego was back. His descent deep into the quagmire continued, actually it worsened, shortly after President Obama went on TV to express the grief and outrage of the American people.

Where President Obama sought to be measured calm and reassuring, Trump was reaching for the dog whistle both on twitter and in an intemperate statement calling for Obama’s resignation.

On Twitter he said: “What has happened in Orlando is just the beginning. Our leadership is weak and ineffective. I called it and asked for the ban…” I responded to him on Twitter pointing out that a ban on Muslim immigrants would not have stopped the Orlando attack as the perpetrator was a US citizen, born in New York city.

Within minutes Trump’s online supporters were attacking me from all sides. Apart from their collective abhorrence of the prospect of more gun control, their arguments and rebuttals flatly contradicted each other.

Some said that I was missing the point and that an immigration ban would have stopped the killer’s parents from immigrating (though they were somewhat sketchy on how a ban imposed in 2017 could be backdated to prevent them entering 30+ years ago).

Others, the more hard-line ones, said that Trump would not just introduce a temporary ban on Islamic immigrants, but that he was in favour of banning Muslims – full stop. Some of these talked about how they could set up internment camps like (according to one deluded sole) those set up in WW2 or perhaps, even, deport them.

Another smaller set of Trump supporters, identifying themselves as immigrants for Trump, harangued me saying that it was me who was implying that all Islamic immigrants were terrorists and that Mr Trump had never said that.

It was hard not to be struck by the glaring inconsistencies and absolute contradictions between these most steadfast and passionate of Trump advocates and to reflect on how it is not the detail of what Trump says, but its vagueness and hollowness that attracts them.

He presents them with a blank platform upon which they can unload their own prejudices, grievances and bigotry without reference to what their fellow Trump supporters say or think.

While ugliness and confusion of these yelped Twitter responses can possibly be explained by the anger, ignorance and frustration of those involved, no such excuse can be applied to the man who lets loose this anger by, in the guise of leadership, blowing the dog whistle on this tragedy.

One of the reasons political leaders come together in the face of crisis or attack, be it internal or external, is that there know that there is strength in unity. They know the importance of being strong in the face of attack and signalling that there is more that unites us, than divides us.

Trump took the opposite course last night. In comments that might have been viewed, in days gone by, as treasonous and unpatriotic, Trump went well beyond usual partisan politics and dismissed America’s leadership as weak and ineffectual. He as good as said that the terrorists are winning.

How can you ever hope to make “America great again” by publicly talking it down in the wake of an attack?

Prof Simon Schama’s Tweet in the midst of the anger and turmoil last night summed it up best: “…we have a cultural civil war now in USA”. 

 

Obama – one year on from his second victory

12 Nov

My column for The Herald from Washington DC on my “coffee shop” poll one year on from President Barack Obama’s second term win.

My "in Washington" Herald column

My “in Washington” Herald column

“The worse I do, the more popular I become”. So said the late President Kennedy trying to understand his higher poll ratings after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Almost exactly 50 years after Kennedy’s assasssination the words could just as easily sum up Barack Obama’s past year. Sitting here, looking out from my Washington DC hotel bedroom towards the Dome of the Capitol building; it is hard to believe it is over a year since I was writing about the 2012 Presidential debates. Though his lack lustre performancein the first debate hurt his poll ratings in the opening weeks, I had no doubt he would be re-elected.

The real question one year ago was if Obama’s second term could deliver the hope and promise which his 2008 campaign promised and his first term failed to match. One year on, it seems that his record in his second term will not be any more impressive than his record in the first.

Over the past 12 months he has presided over a budgetary crisis that effectively shut down large parts of the federal bureaucracy; the Snowden leaks and allegations of spying on friendly governments; continuing problems with his health care reforms, indecision over how to respond to the Syrian crisis and worsening relations with Russia and Putin. Add the sluggishness of the American recovery and you have a catalogue of woes that should have his political foes beside themselves with glee – but they’re not.

Just as in the 2012 election: Obama is blessed with his opponents. Over the past week the President has, as leader of the Democratic Party, witnessed three significant victories: in the Mayoral elections in Boston and New York and the Gubernatorial election in nearby Virginia where the former DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe, a man with several relations in Dublin, won in a traditionally Republican State.

Though techically a victory for the Republic Party, the President can also add moderate Governor Chris Christie’s landslide re-election in New Jersey to the Democrat column. The more conservative “tea party” republicans seem very reluctant to rejoice in Christie’s win, with the darling of the American right Newt Gingrich saying that he was more of a “personality” leader rather than the leader of a movement.

Maybe he is right. Perhaps Gov Christie is just media savvy creation and not the real deal, but his capacity to win over moderates, women and Latinos is something the Republican Party needs if it is to convince voters, post Obama, that they are worth a second look.

For decades before George W Bush presidential elections were fought on the basis of the Democrat lurching to the left to win the nomination but steering back to the centre to win the election itself and the Republican doing likewise, only to the right first,then back to the centre. Bush and his campaign stratagust Karl Rove changed that – they went right towin the nomination and then stayed there working on bring out new right of centre voters. The model worked in 2000 and 2004, but is now bust. The voters know it. The people at the top of the Republican Party know it. Only their grassroots don’t get it. Very few of the people I spoke with over the past few days here in Washington DC and in neighbouring Virginia, regret voting for Obama. They may feel let down by the President, but almost none believe that Romney was the way to go. Though hardly an exhaustive or scientic survey. To be frank it was conducted mainly in bars, coffee shops and stores. I did try to correct any imbalance in the sample due to my social habits by also talking to people attending the same business conference as me. Those interviews yielded the far from astounding conclusion that those who complain most loudly about Obama, never voted for him. Just like it is back in Dublin.

#LE14 changes expose the big weakness in Government’s #Seanad Abolition case

31 May

Phil HoganOn Thursday last the hopes and political aspirations of many hundreds of aspiring and existing City and County Councillors were either dashed or revived with the publication of the new local government electoral boundaries.

Within seconds of being posted online the reports and maps containing the details of the new wards and local areas were being downloaded by political junkies and local election hopefuls across the country, looking to see how the new boundaries would impact on their community.

While these changes, reflecting shifts in population measured at the last Census, are always anxiously awaited, this review had a particular significance as it had been heralded by the Environment Minister as important next step in the Government’s programme for local government reform. Unlike previous reviews this one had a specific goal of improving balance and consistency in representational ratios in local government.

This has been an issue for many years with huge variations in the size of local council constituencies between Dublin and many rural areas. While someone running for election in Dublin City would need 2,500+ votes to secure a seat, someone else running in Leitrim or Roscommon might only require 900 or so votes.

In order to redress this imbalance the Government decided to set terms of reference that reduced the ratio in certain rural areas and reduced it in Dublin. The net effect was that Dublin and other major urban areas get more councillors and many rural areas get less.

The net effect of this rebalancing coupled with the Government’s already stated policy of scrapping Town Councils is a reduction in the number of council seats from 1,627 to 949 and in the number of local authorities from 114 to 31.

This is a significant reduction and it is not going down too well across the country.

While much of the analysis of the review and the changes has understandably focussed on this particular aspect, there is another area which is also worth considering, in the contexts of the Government’s plans to propose the abolition of the Seanad in a referendum later this year.

In scrapping the town councils and reducing the number of local elected representatives so dramatically; have they – to use a phrase from a bygone Fine Gael era – just shot their own fox?

Over the past few weeks and months Fine Gael has been claiming that Ireland does not need a Seanad or second parliamentary chamber based on its size. They have been particularly eager to draw comparisons with a number of the Nordic countries, pointing out that they only have one Chamber and that their average number of national parliamentarians is 160. They even put this claim on their Seanad Abolition posters saying that its time that we too had “fewer politicians”.

The problem with this assertion is that it is just plain wrong. The comparisons Fine Gael try to make don’t work because they compare apples with oranges. They compare bicameral (two chambered) parliaments with unicameral (single chambered) ones and shriek with terror that the bicameral ones have more members – well, of course they have. They are two chambered.

What Fine Gael don’t tell you though is that this is just half the picture. While countries like Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark do not have an upper house of parliament, i.e. no Senate, they have far more powerful, advanced and resourced systems of local government instead. That is how they maintain the checks and balances essential to a proper democracy – balances this Abolition proposal will eliminate.

The statistics country by country are quite impressive:

  • Denmark has 98 local authorities and 2,500 local Councillors.
  • Finland has 304 local authorities and just under 10,000 local Councillors.
  • Norway has 423 local authorities and 12,000 local Councillors.

The most impressive one by far is Sweden. It has a whopping 50,000 public office holders.  In other words 1% of the entire Swedish adult population (ie between 18 and 80) is a politician.

Over 3,500 of these public representatives serve on regional council governments. There are 20 of these councils based on Swedish counties. But these are not our Irish county councils – these councils control local schools, health services and have the power to raise their own taxes. Below this regional government tier there are about 46,000 local Councillors running their own local municipalities.

Sweden has approximately twice our population. So to match the Swedish level of public access and participation we would need to create an additional 20,000 + elected positions. Even before Fine Gael put up a single poster we already had fewer politicians per capita than Sweden or any of the Scandanavian countries.

But Fine Gael has such a cock eyed view of its own logic that after the changes introduced by this government:

  • Ireland will have 31 local authorities and 949 Councillors.
CIMG0509

The courtyard of the Folketing (Danish Parliament)

Doesn’t this run counter to their argument? Surely the way to end elitism is to create more opportunities for access and participation – not less!

Doesn’t this expose and even widen a hole in the Government’s Abolition argument?

The Nordic countries may not have Senate, but they have a sound reason for not needing one. Their systems of government and administration are considerable more devolved than ours, with the Government and parliament retaining less centralised control over day to day services than we do.

In practice this means that the scrutiny and oversight we need to conduct in a Senate can be done by them at the local government level.

The Danish ambassador to Ireland, Niels Pultz, explained this approach in a recent column for the Irish Independent:“Another important fundamental in Danish politics is the division of labour between the national parliament and the local municipalities. The philosophy is basically that issues of importance to the daily life of citizens are best taken care of at the local level. That goes for primary and secondary education, social services, health, child care, local roads, water and waste management.”

If the government seriously believes that it can move our parliamentary system to resemble the Nordic model is it not going completely the wrong way about doing it?

ENDS

Image

Mitt Romney heading to White House… but just to visit

29 Nov

Mitt Romney heading to White house

I snapped this pic of Mitt Romney on my Nokia phone just outside The Warner Theatre on Pennsylvania Ave, DC. He was on his way to the nearby White House for lunch with President Obama.

As soon as Florida became too close to call, it was all over

7 Nov

My take on the US Presidential election results from tonight’s Evening Herald

My Evening Herald column on the Obama victory night

“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half!” If this is how Henry Ford felt about his cash you can only imagine how the campaign treasurers in both American parties feel about 90% of theirs.

Last January polls showed Obama and Romney in a statistical dead heat within a point or two of each other. Ten months and some €4.7billion of campaign spending later and the two parties appeared to have hardly budged an inch.

Watching the early results in the Presidential and Congressional come in this morning you had to wonder did either candidate or party get value for its money.

On Monday I said that I though Obama would win and that he would win the majority of the so called battleground States. While I was fully confident of that view when I penned it last Monday, I did have one brief  moment of doubt last night.

It came by way of a stern but firm Facebook message from an old friend in New York. He said he thought that Romney might just shade it. His comments came as a bit of a shock as my mate is no political novice and is usually a good judge of these things.

The first key result I was waiting for was Virginia. While Obama could win the election without winning in Virginia it would be a good early indicator of how the election was going.

According to the US TV networks they would be ready to make a prediction, based on exit polls, about 30 minutes after midnight Irish time.

The final pre election polls had Obama set to win it by around 2%, but that was inside the margin of error.  The exit polls would tell all. My heart sank a little when the Networks declared Virginia too close to call at the appointed time.

Could my mate be right? Could it be that Romney had managed to claw back enough to reverse Obama’s small lead? Virginia was not essential or critical to an Obama win, but it might be an indication of other problems.

The uncertainty lasted about thirty minutes. Soon reports started to emerge that Florida was too close to call. On Monday I had predicted it would go to Romney. Almost every polling company had been calling it for Romney for weeks, yet the reports coming out from precincts and districts across the State were saying that it was neck and neck.

Latino, women and young voters were coming out for Obama in bigger numbers and by wider margin than predicted. Obama had been expected to get about 66% of the latino voter, but the exit polls were not putting it at 71%..

Florida was the third easiest State for Romney to win from Obama, yet it was going to Obama, though only just. Of the swing sates only two: Indiana and North Carolina went to Romney, the rest stuck with the President.

In each case the margin was tight, but in America’s first past the post system, the winner takes it all.

By a little after 3.00am is was virtually all over. While there were several races still too close to call, all were favouring the President. Obama had not won the magic 270 electoral college votes but it looks now that there was almost no mathematical possibility of Romney reaching it.

While he was not losing them by large margins the States were being stacked up against Romney.  By 4am it was all over once Ohio was called for Obama. With that Romney’s last remaining hope was quashed. While a few diehard Republicans refused to accept the prediction it was over and so Election 2012 ended with a stronger Electoral College victory for Obama, 332 to 206, than even I dared imagine a few days ago.

Why I’m convinced Obama is on course for a second term.

5 Nov

My column predicting an Obama victory from today’s Evening Herald   

My Herald Column Calling The Election For Obama

 

To quote Niels Bohr: “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” Though I’m loathe to disagree with a Nobel prize-winner, when your editor asks for a prediction you don’t reply: don’t know.

While national polls show the US Presidential election as a dead heat, I reckon Obama will make it. The two keys to forecasting US elections are polls in the nine battleground states and voter turnout.

It is the “electoral college” system. Get the most votes in a State and you get all its “electoral college [EC] votes”. The votes allotted are weighted roughly according to the States population with the winner being the one to get 270.

The system is far from perfect. You can win the election without a national majority. It happened in 2000 when Bush beat Gore by 271 EC votes to 266, while getting 544,000 fewer votes nationally. It may happen again this time.

The campaigns are framed accordingly. President Obama jokingly acknowledged this truth at the Al Smith dinner in New York saying: “In less than three weeks, voters in states like Ohio, Virginia and Florida will decide this incredibly important election, which begs the question, what are we doing here?”

Last night’s State polls show Romney likely to take just one of these: Florida, but trailing the President in the other two. Like Meath, Ohio is seen as a bellwether state. No Republican has ever won without winning Ohio and Obama’s lead there looks solid.

Over the next 24 hours, ahead of polls closing on election day tomorrow, both campaigns will be focussed on their GOTV campaigns – getting out their vote. This is still crucial even though around 20% of likely voters (approx 29 million people) have already cast their ballots.

Obama’s handling of the Hurricane Sandy crisis plus the sight of him working with one of his staunchest Republican critics: New Jersey’s Gov Chris Christie cannot have hurt his chances.

Just in the same way as Romney had started to surge before the first debate, Obama had started to regain ground before Sandy hit. Each event was not the catalyst for a bounce it was what encapsulated something already in progress.

Even before the first debate Romney was closing the gap with Obama, particularly with women voters. The Obama campaign had spent millions over the Summer on TV ads portraying Romney as an aloof, remote right winger, using his own words from the primaries to indict him. The Republican convention and Romney’s selection of arch fiscal conservative, Paul Ryan, as his running mate did not help dispel the image.

But as soon as he hit the campaign trail proper Romney eased his message. Gone was the tea-party rhetoric that won him the nomination: in its place the more emollient, stern but fair tone that had made him a moderate Governor.

Women, particularly married women and mothers, started to rally to his cause as they heard him talk about rebuilding America and securing their children’s future. Obama’s double digit lead amongst woman was slashed to about 6%. This is roughly the same amount by which Romney led Obama amongst white men.

By contrast Obama has a 2 to 1 lead among Latino/Hispanic voters, an increasingly important constituency, and a 20 to 1 lead with African-Americans. Getting both groups to the polls in numbers could clinch it for him.

I could go on quoting polls of other groups. Under 35s, veterans, middle class etc, but let me close with a slightly more bit quirky one. Asking voters who they think will win has, in previous elections, been seen to be a better indicator of an election result than asking them who they plan to support.

This time around voters, by a double digit margin, think Obama will beat Romney. It may not be quite as scientific but it, and my gut instinct, convinces me Obama is on course for a second term.

ENDS

“Bayonets and horses” one-liner wins debate for Obama, but will it impress voters

23 Oct

My take on the third and final presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Gov Mitt Romney, from tonight;s Evening Herald.  The print edition features an abridged version of the full piece below.

 

If recent polls are right then last night’s presidential debate outcome will please about 95% of us, even if a deal on Irish bank debt never made the agenda!

Derek Mooney column as it appeared in print version

In their third encounter President Obama again came out on top, but Romney was not too far behind. While Obama has been slipping in the polls since even before the first debate, he still leads Romney on the issue of foreign relations and he showed why last night.

He has, after all, been dealing with foreign affairs for the past four years, while Romney has just been studying it for the past few months. President Obama is the man who took the US out of Iraq, the man who focused on finding and eliminating of Bin Ladin. Then again George Bush I was the man who presided over the fall of communism and drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, but found his re-election bid frustrated by the weakened economy.

Last night’s confrontation was not nearly as fierce as the previous debate, partly because it focussed on foreign affairs, but largely because the two men were seated throughout.

For this rsason their individual body language was not as noticeable as it had been last time. Their words had to carry the force of their argument – and they did. Both went on the attack – Obama attacked Romney’s grasp of the issues, while Romney dismissed the President’s foreign policy record as faltering.

Obama had the one-liner of the night. He countered Romney’s criticism that the US Navy has fewer ships now that it had 1916: ad libbing that they also had fewer bayonets and horses. Obama’s prepared put down saying that Romney’s foreign policy was from the 80s, his social policy was from the 50s and his economic policy was from the 20s was good, but not as effective.

The reality that dare not speak its name last night is the fact that foreign relations is not nearly as important as everyone likes to pretend.

Despite the high flown rhetoric from both on America’s place in the world, this election is about the contents of the ordinary man or woman’s wallet – no other issue comes closer.

Yes, America’s attitudes to the Middle East, Libya, Afghanistan and Syria are important, but these will not decide the outcome of this election, jobs and living standards will.

The two candidates as good as admitted this as they wove the economy and domestic concerns into their replies. The purpose of the debate was not so much to debate foreign policy, but to see how both candidates could handle complex issues.

As with the past two debates the role of the moderator was almost as important as the performances of the two contenders. Across the three debates it has had something of a Goldilocks quality to it. In the first Jim Lehrer was judged to have taken a bit of a back seat. Candy Crowley, the moderator of the second debate was accused of taking too big a role in the encounter, framing supplementary questions and, most notably, pulling up Gov Romney on his alleged misquoting of the President.

If Lehrer and Crowley had made the presidential porridge too cold or too hot, last night’s moderator, veteran news man Bob Schieffer, worked to get the balance just right. Schieffer was more forceful than his close friend Lehrer in enforcing the agreed rules, but was less interventionist than Crowley.

Most american commentators agree that these have been the most exciting debates in decades, but they have not done much to reduce the numbers of undecided voters.

As in previos elections the debates have envigorated those whi have already decided who they will support. The battle for undecideds will be won or lost on the ground in a handful of states, particularly Ohio.

The outcome of this election will be tight, the next fortnight will be fraught.

ENDS.

Round 2 and Romney looked like a hopeless chancer

17 Oct

My analysis of the Second Obama Vs Romney debate from tonight’s Evening Herald

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My Evening Herald Column

If winning the first election debate were the sole criteria for getting elected then Walter Mondale and John Kerry would have been President. They were not.

As I pointed out after the first Obama/ Romney encounter, debates have not decided the outcome of past elections. They are influencers but, despite the occasional bounces, the trend before the debates invariably is the trend after them.

Going into the first debate Obama was leading Romney but the margin was closing. Before they met last night most national polls had the race as either marginally favouring Romney or a dead heat.

The next few days will show what impact last night’s debate had. Chances are that the polls in the key marginal States will bounce up and down in the coming week and the original trend of a narrowing gap with Obama ahead will prevail up to polling day.

So, what happened in last night’s debate?

Firstly, there was a real debate and it was fierce. Maybe it was the format, perhaps it the more effective moderator, but unlike the first the public had the chance to compare and contrast the two men, especially when they clashed directly – and they certainly did that.

Secondly, the 2008 Obama showed up. He did not let Romney’s attacks go unchallenged. On questions on energy, equality, taxation and Libya he not only rebutted the attacks he turned them back on him.

Speaking before last night’s encounter one of Romney’s own campaign aides inadvertently hit on what these debates are about. Pre-emptively dismissing Obama’s likely change in debating strategy, he said Obama could change his style and approach, but he cannot change his record. True.

But this is the Romney campaign’s problem. Obama’s record was every bit as bad a month ago when he was ahead.  What changed at the first debate was not Obama’s record: it was Obama’s attitude. This election is Obama’s to win or lose.

At the previous debate undecided voters saw a President who appeared indifferent and aloof. For months, in countless pro-Obama TV adverts, they had been warned that Romney wanted to give tax breaks to the rich and cut welfare programs for the poor.

They had even seen Romney dismiss 47% of Americans as “victims” who think “they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”

Yet, when the two men faced each other the President had refused to put those charges directly to him. Worse still, Obama came across as being every bit as ineffectual as the pro Romney ads had claimed.

All that changed last night

Obama came prepared for a fight. He showed that knows the golden rule of politics: a vote is worth getting is worth asking for. He made his case for a second forcefully. It was not a flawless performance, but it was passionate.

By contrast, Romney seemed to lose some of his mojo. While he again started out strong, he did waiver and falter as the debate progressed, coming across as tetchy as he argued with the moderator over the rules and time allowed.

But he did something he didn’t do the first time: he made a gaffe, a serious one. His attack on the President over the killing of the American Ambassador and three other officials in Benghazi backfired badly, not only because of its tone but because his misquoting of the President had to be corrected by the moderator.

He made Obama look and sound like a President and made himself look like an ill prepared political opportunist.

Expect to see that clip played and replayed on TV and the internet right up to the final debate on foreign policy next Monday.

In the first debate we saw the enthusiastic challenger and the tired incumbent. In the second we saw the passionate President versus the wealthy businessman.

If that Obama had showed up in Denver, this race might have been over already – maybe it will be if he shows up gain next Monday.

 

 

Obama lost first TV battle – but he’s still on course to win the war

4 Oct

My analysis of Wednesday night’s US Presidential Debate from tonight’s Evening Herald (Oct 4th 2012) .

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Before last night’s Obama/Romney debate the American political rulebook said that debates do not swing elections. While the debates can give a candidate a short term bounce, the trend after the debates tends to be the same as the trend before them.

Sesame Street

Obama never mentioned Romney’s infamous 47%, though it seems Big Bird and pals are part of it.

Without a doubt Romney had a good night. But nothing happened in Denver to change the political rulebook. While commentators, especially the network TV ones, like to think that TV debates swing elections, the reality is that they haven’t.

Yes, there have been some incidents like President Bush Sr’s constant looking at his watch at the 1992 debate or President Ford’s assertion in the 1976 debate against Jimmy Carter that eastern Europe was not dominated by the USSR, but none of these reversed the course of the elections.

Bush Sr had started to lose ground to Clinton before the debate. Ford was trailing Carter badly by the time they debated. Indeed Ford only agreed to the debate because he was behind. Though we think these TV debates have been the norm in the US since the famous Nixon/Kennedy debates of 1960, the 1976 Carter/ Ford one was the first in 16 years.

Presidential debates by their nature tend to favour the challenger. The format raises the challenger’s status presenting the two candidates as equals. The challenger can put the President on the back foot by going on the attack and picking apart the incumbent’s record.

That is what Romney did last night, and he did it effectively.

While the current race is relatively tight, the polls have favoured Obama since before the summer. As with Carter in 1980 the Democrats should be in trouble. Polling suggests that Americans believe their country is on the wrong track by a margin of almost 20%. Optimism is on the decline. Only 43% of middle class Americans expect that their children’s standard of living will be better than their own. This compares to 51% four years ago.

These numbers should be poison for Obama and the Democrats and make the election a slam dunk for the Republicans, except the same Americans either do not understand or do not believe the alternative vision offered by Romney.

Romney’s people know this. He went into last night’s debate with a mission to change American’s views of him. He did himself some good in that regard. He not only went on the attack on Obama’s record he also scored several points in denying the Democrats portrayal of him as a tax cutter for the rich. The issue for him is that he did this at the expense of discussing the details of his alternative.

Perhaps his position behind Obama convinced him that he had nothing to lose with this approach, but the other risk for Romney is that his lurch to the centre may mean leaving some right wing voters at home?

In contrast, Obama seemed aloof and remote. He was reluctant to attack and take Romney on directly. This may have been a deliberate tactic. His people may have felt that scrapping and politicking with Romney wouldn’t look Presidential – he never mentioned Romney’s 47% remarks even once – however, it also meant that he allowed several very answerable attacks on his record go unchallenged.

While Romney didn’t land a knock out blow, he did win in terms of punches landed. He also did well in terms of appearance and body language, he dominated the debate. These things matter. This is television after all. We get as much information from what we see as what we hear.

Arguably the real impact these debates will have will be down to the clips the TV news shows choose to use in the coming days, though neither man gave a hostage to fortune.  The late night comics will have fun with Romney’s threat to cut public funding for PBS and Big Bird, but I don’t see last night’s rather boring exchanges as switching anyone’s vote.

Romney may have won the debate – but I reckon he will still lose the election

ENDS