Thursday, October 4, 2012

What If Obama Didn't Want to Fight?

I don't normally write about politics at this blog. Yet after this presidential debate and the campaign coverage that followed I thought I had to write something on this topic. Our world is less and less ruled by convention. Most of us probably don't live our day to day lives like our parents did. The woman often times makes more money than the man in the relationship. There is less domestic violence in the home today than there was when we were growing up. Nevertheless politics is still conceived in the same archaic macho culture centered around on the idea of two men 'slugging it out' to win.

This probably worked well a few generations ago and it probably still resonates with men.  Yet as I was watching Obama's debate performance last night I couldn't help wonder whether it would have been a winning strategy for him.

Let's start at the beginning.  Nothing Romney could have done would help him win the 'minority vote.'  Black people aren't going to abandon the first black president, let alone to a man from a religious community that was until a generation ago an overtly racist belief system.  It seems unlikely that Romney's performance was going to make a dent on Latinos either.

So now we are down to the white vote.  It's been said that in order to win Romney has to get about 61 percent of that demographic a figure exceeding what George H.W. Bush commanded over Michael Dukakis in 1988.  Romney certainly was competing for that demographic.  He tried to look and sound like Ronald Reagan.  He has a lot going for him as a candidate.  He's rich, intelligent, successful and good-looking - and for that night at least he seemed to have fire in his belly.

All of which brings me to the topic of Obama's strategy.  The President's brain trust must have studied all of Romney's previous debate performances.  They must have been aware of his abilities.  Clearly then President Obama's advisers must have had an inkling that their Republican opponent was going to come out all guns blazing.  Why then did they settle upon a strategy of disengagement?

In watching the debate President Obama seemed to turn the rules for the debates upside down.  He seemed to treat it more like a photo opportunity than a brawl, with the President stressing over and over again how much agreement there was between the candidates.

The idea that Obama was 'rusty' or 'having a bad night' simply doesn't make sense.  A boxer having a bad night attempts to land punches and misses.  The President wasn't even fighting.  He seemed subdued, disinterested and disengaged.

As I noted earlier it is impossible to believe that this was anything other than a tactic on the part of his brain trust.  As Ronald Brownstein notes in a recent article, Obama is counting on 80% of the minority vote.  As Brownstein says in that article "if Obama matches that performance this year, he can squeak out a national majority with support from about 40 percent of whites—so long as minorities at least match the 26 percent of the vote they cast last time."

All of which brings me back to last night's debate.  Brownstein's article was written long before Obama ran away with the lead through September.  The private polling available to the President was likely showing a 4 - 6 percent lead nationally and an even wider margin in key swing states like Ohio.  Even though Obama's brain trust was acting shocked at Romney's 47% statement at the private fundraiser, the Republican nominee's admission about a segment of support 'locked in' for the President is probably backed up by polling data.  A similar number, something like 44% is probably locked in Romney's column.

The question then is what are they fighting over in the debate?  For Romney's part his performance fires up the Republican base.  They loved to see him come out like a macho prize fighter.  But what is Obama accomplishing by bashing the brains of his opponent?  He already has the 47% locked in.  It's that little sliver of the undecideds that he was after with that public display of apatheia.  Probably suburban women voters who are turned off by the very macho culture which still pervades our political culture.

To be certain liberal media pundits were disappointed that President Obama didn't take a sledgehammer to Mitt Romney.  But they are undoubtedly going to vote for him anyway.  Just look at the triumphant headlines of the right-wing media as they describe the debate. "Romney Slaughtered Obama" touts one site. "Massacre Leaves Liberals in Tears" declares another.  There's even "Romney Came With a Chainsaw"

Yet tell me honestly.  Is that soccer mom living in Columbus or Denver or Orlando really going to be swayed by male aggression and machismo?  If she's a voter with that kind of sensibility, she's already made up her mind which way she's going to vote.

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