Looking Ahead to the Second Debate


Photograph by John Lobel

by Elvin Lim

Paul Ryan did a good job at the vice-presidential debate; but Joe Biden did a little better. Biden came off condescending in the initial part of the debate with his laughter, but he mellowed out toward the end. He was aided in part by the fact that Martha Raddatz, the moderator, was somewhat tougher on Ryan than on Biden.

Ryan’s best line was his rebuttal to Biden’s discussion of Romney’s “47 percent remark,” when he noted that Biden has had his own foot-in-mouth moments. Biden’s best moment during the debate was when he informed the audience that the Congressman had sent him two letters asking for federal aid to stimulate job growth in Wisconsin. Ouch on both counts.

But this debate did not change the dynamics of the race. Independents care more about the top of the ticket, so Obama will still have to come back swinging in the next presidential debate if he wants to regain the lead he had two weeks ago.

The Romney bump from the first debate comes from one thing more than any other: it was the first time since the primaries that he had the freedom to come back to the political center. Before, he was hemmed in and awkward because he was trying to out-flank his competitors on the right. Now, by moving back to the center, Romney was able to tap into the reserve of undecided voters, while his critics on the right have no choice but to bite their tongue when they watch him take new positions, such as accepting parts of Obamacare, because they would rather Romney wins than Obama.

Knowing this, the best way forward for Obama on Tuesday is to draw out the Romney from the primaries. He will try to remind Americans of the Romney who was polling so poorly most of summer while the Obama team was bombarding the airwaves trying to define Romney as the guy with the offshore bank accounts who doesn’t quite get middle America. To remind voters of himself back in 2008, Obama needs to recall the language of community, mutual obligations, and the promise of “a more perfect Union.”

Obama should also be prepared to answer questions about the security situation at Benghazi. The best defense is an offense for him. Even if the administration had beefed up security in Benghazi — and most of the requests were for extending the tours of security guards in Tripoli, 400 miles away — there is no evidence to think that the embassy assault on Sep 11 could have been prevented or repelled.

Polls seem to indicate that the Romney bump from the last debate has tapered out. Both candidates will have to fight harder every day, as the number of persuadable voters decline as we approach November 6. After the second presidential debate, the ground game (as opposed to the air war) is going to become increasingly important — and here is where Romney could be at a disadvantage, which is why he needs to ace this debate more than Obama.

Piece crossposted with Out on a Lim