A Further Perspective

The Real Contest in the Debates

It's not about who wins or loses but about establishing the credibility of the man who would replace the incumbent.

By 10.22.12

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Those saying the presidential debate score is now tied, do not understand the game. The debates were never as much about winning or losing, as they were about establishing or denying Romney's credibility. So far, Romney has more than established this, and it may already be too late to reverse it -- regardless of how tonight's debate turns out.

As to be expected, liberals immediately fell all over themselves declaring Obama the winner of the second debate. Their goal was obvious: Get the bad taste of Romney's first debate dominance out of their mouths and the impression of Romney's superiority out of America's mind. Liberals had to push that hard for two reasons.

First, there was no clear-cut winner in the second debate. CNN/ORC released a poll (457 adults, MOE +/-4.6%) taken right after the debate. It showed 46% thinking Obama did the better job in the debate, versus 39% for Romney. Obama was below a majority and the difference was within the poll's margin of error. Compare that to the 67% to 25% edge Romney had in the same group's poll taken after the first debate.

Certainly, Obama performance improved. But equally clearly, it had nowhere to go but up from his first debate's. Largely, this time he just did the obvious things -- but the very things he had left undone in the first debate.

At the same time, Romney maintained his performance at a high level. That level had been so good the first time, he was always going to be hard-pressed to repeat it.

What really happened in the second debate is that both candidates were largely dead even. The narrow separation between them in the polls seemed to be reflected on stage that night.

This brings us to the second reason that liberals pushed so hard to declare Obama the second debate's winner. Despite there being no real winner in the second debate, there was in the first debate: Romney by a country mile. Everyone saw it and everyone acknowledged it -- immediately and, in the case of liberals, candidly.

For these reasons, liberals would love to redefine this year's debates into a simple scorecard of who won each one. The best outcome for them, under the current circumstances, is to say that the debates are tied at one apiece. This would make the debates a nonfactor and that Obama could even have the chance to emerge as the winner following the third debate.

However, these debates have never been such a contest, any more than this election has been. These debates are this election in miniature. And what this election has always been about is Romney's credibility as Obama's replacement.

The reason is simple: the economy's last four years have been unquestionably bad. Everyone admits it -- conservatives explicitly, and blaming Obama for it; liberals implicitly, and blaming Bush for it. But no one says they have not been an unrepeatable four years.

So the election has never been about what kind of job Obama has done. The last four years have answered that for most voters -- the only argument being over why. This election has been about whether Romney could do a better job.

The reasoning is impeccable: After the economy's last four years, why not give someone else a chance? As long as that "someone else" is competent, that is. So both campaigns have had to address that question.

The Obama campaign has been unabashedly directed at answering that question as negatively as possible -- virtually to the exclusion of anything else.

That's why complaints are so frequently leveled against its lack of a plan for the next four years. However, that's never been its focus and never could be. How can you have a better plan for the next four years, than the one you pursued for the last four years? And why, if its better, was it not used during the first four, when America most needed it?

During the first two debates, Romney himself -- not his campaign -- has answered the question: Yes, I am more than capable of leading America. A large portion of America has come away from the debates with that same conclusion. In just three hours, Romney has answered the question that this entire campaign has been about.

No wonder liberals would like to now redefine what these debates mean. There is likely nothing Obama can do now to change the answer the debates have already yielded. For the real contest that these debates constituted -- over Romney's competency to be president -- at this point, Obama simply cannot win.

Obama can only hope that somehow Romney stumbles so badly as to lose them in the last debate. After Romney's his first two performances, it has become increasingly unlikely that will happen. If Obama ultimately loses the election itself, he and his advisers will know exactly when, why -- and most gratingly of all to them -- by whom it happened.

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About the Author

J.T. Young served in the Department of Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.