Spinning the Debate

Last Wednesday, Mitt Romney cantered into Swarthmore College, albeit virtually on CNN. The Swarthmore Democrats, Swarthmore Conservatives, Students for Obama, and other clubs convened for reactions that were certainly rowdier than those at the silent auditorium at the University of Colorado. Besides the general civic good cheer that came with sharing a national event with students of different political stripes, watching the debate as a campus brought forth its own special effect, or what I’d like to dub the “Swarthmore spin.”

Sure, I’m a political person who interprets the news through a more conservative beat on life, but it wasn’t until later in the night, when I tuned into the Internet’s Twittering masses, that I came to realize what a knockout many Americans believed Romney truly scored. I thought Romney performed well, staying both confident and succinct. Nonetheless, viewing the debate alongside a mostly progressive audience made me far more cynical of Romney’s chances than the average Fox News commentator, who looked to be resisting backflips.

James Taranto, author of The Wall Street Journal’s satirical Best of the Web column, often cites his so-called “Taranto principle”; that is, that American liberals are more insulated within their own cultural and political institutions than conservatives are. By concentrating themselves in the same elite zip codes, universities and think tanks, they risk a dangerous echo chamber. Politicians on the left are lulled into following the advice of the liberal media without anticipating the hearty objections of red America. The iconic example is Senator John Kerry, whom the friendly press encouraged to trumpet his Vietnam heroism. Kerry’s false military bravado prompted the “Swiftboat” backlash against his inflated war record, but the situation might have been avoided had he not been spoiled into complacency by the left-leaning press.

The Swarthmore spin, I suspect, is analogous to Taranto’s observations in that our reputation for all-things-progressive woos us into finding politicians like Barack Obama more persuasive than his rhetoric alone deserves.

I thought the first 10 minutes or so of the debate were mostly a draw, as the two men spent too much time sparring over Romney’s hypothetical tax plans instead of Obama’s real, actualized spending policies. As a quasi-libertarian, I admit to being mildly irked when Romney praised federal regulation as “essential” and elaborated, “You can’t have a free market work if you don’t have regulation.” I was too wrapped up in my own Hayekian sympathies — and my friends’ penchant for poking fun at Romney’s facial expressions — that I overlooked the politically artful move Romney was staging.

For months, the president has set Romney up as some sort of anarcho-capitalist strawman, and here the governor was presenting himself as a reasonable human being who understands some government is essential. Many Swatties, of course, dismissed Romney’s tack to the center as pure hypocrisy, not heeding the plausible appeal he was making to the American appreciation for small but existent government.

Among all the Mitt-mockers, I almost missed the debate’s mood-shift, around the same time that moderator Jim Lehrer made clear he’d exert about as much command over the candidates as an overwhelmed substitute teacher in a middle school classroom. As Romney got into his groove, he even said of the debate, in his 1950’s gee-whiz speaking style, “It’s fun, isn’t it?”

Meanwhile, Obama looked peeved and taken aback. The last time anyone’s really asked him tough questions to his face may have been the Joe the Plumber kerfuffle, circa 2008. By the second half of the debate, Obama stopped speaking normal sentences in favor of an anxious long-windedness. The portion, around the 21st minute in the transcript, when Obama jumps from ExxonMobil to corporate jets to Romney’s corporate tax rate proposal to a teacher in Las Vegas, is a case in point.

These were hackneyed rebuttals, when the president remembered to challenge Romney at all. All the same, our Swarthmore audience cheered on Obama’s so-so comebacks and booed through Romney’s emotional appeal to our Constitution and Creator. Rewatching last Wednesday’s video, I found Romney’s talk of God and the Founding Fathers deeply moving, yet at the time, he earned loud snickers and eye-rolls from Swat viewers. Yes, Romney’s reminder of our “endowed” rights was conservative, old-fashioned, right-wing, patriotic and breezy. But Americans love that stuff. It’s true, you could argue many Americans are shamefully ill-informed, but I suspect the average citizen also still has an instinct that the Constitution is a pretty profound document.

I’m fairly supportive of Mitt Romney, and it’s no secret that I have major qualms with the Obama Administration. But I exited the debate thinking it was mostly a draw between the two men. Not until seeing CNN’s immediate poll showing 67 percent of viewers declaring Romney the victor did I reconsider the Swarthmore auditorium’s effect on my perception.

The following day, the most consistent criticism I heard from students was that they liked what Obama was saying but worried that he didn’t say it well. This is an ironic inversion of 2008. Four years ago, candidate Obama was all about tone and optics. Perfectly articulated speeches, well-creased slacks, Roman columns, excellent website, adorable daughters and fawning crowds won the day. Maybe last week he won “on substance” while stumbling on his words. Or maybe we’re just spinning.

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