David Frum

10.04.12

Why Obama Lost

Mitt Romney dominated and Barack Obama stumbled in Denver Wednesday night. What went right for Romney and wrong for the president? These things:

Romney arrived with a strategic plan; Obama didn’t.
Romney was quick on his feet; Obama slow on his feet.
Romney showed EQ as well as IQ; Obama didn’t.

Let's take them in reverse order.

Emotional Intelligence vs. Plain Old Intelligence.

Romney, the multimillionaire, arrived in a suit, shirt and tie that looked like they’d been purchased at Macy’s. I doubt he’ll ever wear them again, but for one night, he looked the way most non-zillionaires look when they dress for business. His manner was warm, engaged, and respectful. He looked at the president when the president spoke, and his expression revealed no asperity or disdain. He jokingly expressed his sympathy to the president for having to spend his 20th wedding anniversary in Denver “with me” - and the joke worked.

Obama, by contrast, rarely looked at Romney. He looked down at his podium, which meant that the audience saw closed eyes and a frowning mouth. Again and again, Obama allowed himself to be dragged into a tangle of facts and figures - failing to realize that confusion is Romney’s friend. The Republican base saddled Romney with a hugely unpopular economic plan. The clearer and more specific the discussion gets, the more danger Romney is in. Unlike his supporters in the conservative media, Romney clearly understands this. The president must surely know it too, but he failed to act on that knowledge. He was professorial, elliptical, vague, abstract; Romney appeared plausible, concerned, compassionate, and energetic.

Obama’s performance was so disengaged that I was left to wonder: had that Daily Caller/Fox News tape got inside his head? Was he so determined not to look like an angry black man that he ended up looking ... kind of like a wimp?

Video screenshot

Obama’s missed chances.

As the more aggressive debater on the stage, Romney opened himself up to a number of devastating counterpunches. Obama was never nimble enough to take advantage of them. Maybe the most potentially lethal occurred during a debate over Obama’s claim that there existed tax deductions to move American jobs overseas - a claim that (with a view to blue-collar Midwestern voters) Obama repeated at least twice. After one of those claims, Romney countered that in many years in business, he’d never noticed such a deduction in the tax code. Then he said, “Maybe I need a better accountant.”

That was the Dan Quayle moment of this debate. Reply: “Governor, your accountant is excellent. He’s got you paying a lower tax rate than the White House cleaning staff!”

When Obama began talking about Medicaid - a discussion that Bill Clinton used to devastating effect in his speech at the Democratic convention in Charlotte - he opened with the phrase, “This may not seem like a big deal.” OK, then I won’t listen.

And when finally Jim Lehrer invited the two candidates to discuss their differences on Social Security - a program that Romney’s running mate has derided as a “collectivist welfare transfer system” - Obama begged off, disclaiming any important difference at all.

Romney’s plan vs. Obama’s non-plan.

In Denver, Romney executed his long-awaited pivot to the center. Obama by contrast neither talked purposefully about his record nor effectively attacked Romney’s proposals.

He might have said: “I signed a law that guarantees that no American will ever again lose his or her health coverage because he or she lost a job. Governor Romney wants to remove that guarantee.”

He might have said: “Never again will a cancer patient be told, ‘Sorry, you’ve exhausted your coverage.’”

Instead he mentioned in passing the rebates some Americans have received on their healthcare premiums. He referenced changes in the rules governing pre-existing conventions. He utterly failed to drive home what any of this might mean for the viewers watching at home.

Eschewing a proud defense, Obama also failed to execute much of an offense.

Obama’s line of attack on Romney is obvious. “Bush, Bush, Bush, Bush. Did I mention the 47%? And oh by the way - Bush.”

Instead, Obama omitted to talk in any tangible way about Romney’s budget cuts would mean. (Romney, quite incredibly, disavowed any intent to cut education spending - even though his budget plan demands very large cuts in domestic discretionary spending, of which education of course is an important component piece. Obama let him get away with it.)

Nor did Obama pound home the implications of Romney’s tax plan.
Romney kept insisting that his tax plan would not raise taxes on the middle-class and would keep constant the amount paid by “high-income individuals.”

Obama insisted that Romney was not telling the truth and that taxes on the middle would go up. This plunged the debate into a “yes, you did; no, I didn’t” muddle.

Here’s the point Obama missed: Even on Romney’s own telling, his tax plan involves a huge downward shift within the universe of high-income taxpayers. The hedge-fund guys get a new 28% maximum rate; America’s orthodontists and high school principals lose 30% of their tax deductions.

The appropriate rebuttal to Romney’s tax plan is not, “You’re a big liar, and you will tax the middle class no matter what you say here tonight.”

The rebuttal is: “Governor, your own economists say that in order to cut taxes for people earning $10 million, you will raise them on people earning $100,000. I guess you could say they’re all ‘high-income.’ But basically you are going to cut your own taxes, and pay for it by raising the taxes of your house manager back in La Jolla - assuming you’re paying your house manager what he or she is worth. The Porsche customers get a tax cut; the Porsche sales force gets a tax increase. Is that fair?”

Speaking personally: Debate Romney is my kind of Republican. I much prefer Debate Romney to the other Romneys we’ve seen so far. If Debate Romney prefigures the kind of president a President Romney would be, then I think we’d all be in very good hands. If not ... well today’s not the day to think about that.

All in all: a very bad night for the president. Will it hurt him? Maybe not. But it sure didn’t help.