The first debate of the 2012 election is history and the way the press covers it will tell us a lot about whether they are more interested in style or substance.
In a couple of snap polls last night, Romney came out on top with a big 2-to-1 advantage. It’s important to note however, that these polls only surveyed people watching the debate, not the electorate at large. Most Americans were not watching the debate and will develop their opinions from the media coverage. In 2008 about 52 million people watched the Obama/McCain debate, but more than 133 million people voted that year. Even so, in CNN’s poll a plurality (47%) of those surveyed said that the debate would not change how they planned to vote. Of the remaining respondents 35% were swayed to Romney and 18% to Obama.
What is most significant is the difference between the candidates in terms of substance. While Obama missed several opportunities to raise pivotal issues like unions, women’s rights, Bain Capital, tax returns, or immigration, he was cogent and factual. Romney, on the other hand, avoided any specifics (as he has done throughout the campaign) and left a trail of lies. For instance: his insistence that his tax plan would not result in a $5 trillion dollar deficit; his claim that his health plan would not raise costs for seniors or affect anyone over 55 years old; his denial that his Medicare plan was a voucher program; his assertion that he would not reduce the taxes on the rich; and many more.
Most Hypocritical Moment:
Is this the same media that is “in the tank” for Obama?
Most Delusional Moment: Mitt Romney asserting that he was a bipartisan governor in Massachusetts. That is not how Democrats recall it. He was considered to be aloof and dismissive. He couldn’t remember the names of legislators much of the time. And he reserved one of the elevators in the state house for his exclusive use. I guess he didn’t even want to ride up to his office with those peons.
Saddest Moment: When Romney reiterated his determination to kill Big Bird by defunding public television. This is something he has said repeatedly, despite the fact that it would only reduce the deficit by a tiny fraction. I analyzed this last May in a column where I wrote that…
“Despite his denials, killing off Big Bird is precisely what his plan would accomplish. There is a reason that commercial TV does not produce the sort of programming seen on PBS. For-profit networks have to cater to advertisers in order to stay in business. By necessity they are more concerned with generating profit than with quality programming.”
That was followed with a glimpse of the programming on cable networks that were supposed to compete with PBS. It is “a jumble of insipid reality programs that repeat ad nauseum.” Truly embarrassing fare like Top Chef, Toddlers & Tiaras, and Real Housewives. Not exactly educational TV.
Obama’s Best Moment:
“I think the American people have to ask themselves is the reason that Governor Romney is keeping all these plans to replace secret because they’re too good?”
What occurs in the press for next few days will have a bigger impact on the election than the actual debate. Since most voters did not watch the debate, their impressions of the encounter will come from the media analysis. Will the media focus on style, where Obama seemed to be less aggressive and engaged? Or will they focus on substance, where Romney loaded his performance with falsehoods and contradictions? Time will tell.