The American Debate: A wake-up call for Democrats

Showdown: Rep. Paul Ryan and Vice President Biden after their debate Thursday night at Centre College in Danville, Ky.
Showdown: Rep. Paul Ryan and Vice President Biden after their debate Thursday night at Centre College in Danville, Ky. (CHARLIE NEIBERGALL / AP)

Confidence turns to worry, but the race always was going to be tight. Think Bush vs. Kerry.

Posted: October 15, 2012

Your average Democratic partisan is by nature an anxious soul, prone to wild mood swings, with a range of neuroses reminiscent of Woody Allen. And the current presidential campaign has done nothing to ease those symptoms.

Way back in the distant sands of time - say, two weeks ago - the Democratic mood was downright giddy, buoyed by Barack Obama's increasingly robust poll numbers. People started to behave as if Obama had the election in the bag, and denizens of the left-leaning echo chamber began to fantasize about a decisive victory, a replay of 2008. Andrew Sullivan, the prominent blogger and commentator, declared that Obama was set to become "the Democrats' Reagan."

But in the wake of the debate where Obama comported himself like a sleepwalker on Ambien, Democrats opened their oven doors and inserted their heads. We're doomed, they cried. And the aforementioned Sullivan, in full whipsaw mode, promptly declared: "Obama just forfeited the election."

Take a breath, people. Obama's reelection was never as assured as it seemed in September, and it's not nearly as imperiled as it seems in October. The fundamentals that were established early in 2012 remain in place late in 2012: Despite a persistently weak economic recovery at home, and myriad challenges abroad, the president has clung to a small elector-map lead in a race that will stay competitive to the end.

Granted, the Democratic fury after that first debate was understandable; it was inexplicable that Obama would allow Mitt Romney to evade and deceive and sell his fungible factoids for 90 minutes in front of 70 million people. One liberal reader e-mailed me to say: "To be out-passioned by Romney is a disgrace. If he can't show more than he got last night, he doesn't deserve to be reelected."

But let's put things in perspective. Here's another quote: "At least in the short run, the challenger may have performed some necessary image repair, perhaps increasing his comfort level with supporters who have been frustrated by his campaign, and demonstrating to swing voters that he's more than a mere weather vane." In other words, the underdog challenger persuaded voters to give him a second look.

That's clearly about Romney, right?

Wrong. I wrote that sentence in 2004 - in reference to John Kerry, who had just won his first debate against incumbent George W. Bush.

The general consensus that autumn was that Kerry defeated Bush in all three debates. But Kerry lost the election anyway; Bush eked out the narrowest incumbent victory since Woodrow Wilson won in the wee hours in 1916. And Obama still seems poised to join their company, winning a squeaker at the final buzzer. In fact, I wrote back in July that the broad contours of the current race resemble those of 2004. I could be wrong, of course - the past is not always prologue - but the similarities persist.

I say this not merely because another polarizing president saddled with serious issue baggage (Iraq then; the economy now) has sought to paint his opponent as a rich elitist flip-flopper who can't connect with common folk. More important, this is about the polarized electorate. At this late date, just as in 2004, there are very few undecided swing voters. The outcome of this election, as in 2004, will likely hinge on which candidate turns on his partisans and succeeds in turning them out.

Romney's postdebate poll rise was fueled not by swing voters taking his side, but by GOP partisans who previously had been wary of the guy. His assertive performance persuaded many of them to "come home." Conversely, Obama's lassitude soured his own partisans. But despite Romney's gains, there is scant evidence that the trajectory of the race has been fundamentally altered.

For starters, Democratic partisans have stepped back from the ledge after watching Joe Biden in the vice presidential debate. His hyperactive stagecraft probably turned off a lot of viewers, but his main job was to buck up the party base, and he did it - by bulldozing Paul Ryan on the issues that Democrats care about most. For instance (this is the abridged version of just one Biden colloquy):

"We went out and rescued General Motors. . . . When that occurred, what did Romney do? Romney said, 'No, let Detroit go bankrupt.' . . . But it shouldn't be surprising for a guy who says 47 percent of the American people are unwilling to take responsibility for their own lives. . . . These people are my mom and dad - the people I grew up with, my neighbors. They pay more effective tax than Governor Romney pays in his federal income tax. They are elderly people who in fact are living off of Social Security. There are veterans and people fighting in Afghanistan right now who are, quote, 'not paying any tax.' . . . Instead of signing pledges to Grover Norquist not to ask the wealthiest among us to contribute to bring back the middle class, they should be signing a pledge saying to the middle class, 'We're going to level the playing field.' "

That's the kind of stuff Obama fans were craving - now it's their turn to "come home" - and Biden, by plucking populist chords, was talking as well to the working stiffs in pivotal states like Ohio. Indeed, despite tightening in the polls, Obama has sustained modest leads in many of the swing states, most notably Ohio. And there's polling evidence that Obama has done well with early voters in Ohio, many of whom cast their ballots prior to the first presidential debate.

But now comes the second debate, Tuesday night, and Obama can ill afford to mail it in again. His opponent, a very slick salesman, is "practiced at the art of deception" (to quote a Rolling Stones lyric), and this time Obama has to call out the artwork. Biden has teed him up to do the job. Heck, Bill Clinton, at the convention and lately on the stump, has teed him up to do the job. But if he can't do it properly, he doesn't deserve to keep the job he has.


The American Debate:

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Dick Polman can be reached

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