Politics & Media
Oct 05, 2012, 03:41AM

Did Obama Throw the Debate?

He was bored.

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It’s broadly acknowledged that President Obama got beat like a drum by Mitt Romney in the first presidential debate in Denver. Even Slate, that bastion of phony contrarianism, couldn't find a single pundit foolish enough to argue Obama had won it on points or on style. Every poll of debate watchers found at least a clear plurality thought Romney had won. When you take out all the undecideds and people who would ever say anything nice about a Republican, the verdict was unanimous.

Obama didn't manage to win it on word count either, though he steamrolled over moderator Jim Lehrer to speak four minutes longer than Romney. There were too many pauses and hesitations and uhs and ums and ahs. The President looked distracted and bored and pissed off, and that's precisely how he debated. He tried a few canned attacks and when Romney deflected those effectively, he shrugged and passed the time.

The interesting question is why our normally very competitive president charged into the debate with all the enthusiasm of a boxer who'd taken a big bag of cash to take a dive. A lot of people have theories to explain this. Al Gore actually blamed it on altitude in the Mile High City. Many conservative commentators fingered Obama's arrogance. He figured Romney was a lightweight and thus didn't prepare for a real fight.

I have another theory, one that requires a brief biographical diversion but I think the payoff will be worth it. So bear with me. In my freshman year of high school, I stupidly signed up for an Earth science class. It was absurdly easy but by the time I worked this out, the deadline to switch classes had passed. That left me stuck with a dumb class with a ton of homework and regular tests that I would ace.

The syllabus showed us how the work was weighted and I could do math. If you could ace the tests, you could get away with not turning in a lot of the homework. It's not that I didn't do most of the homework. I did, but the turn-in box was right next to the recycle bin. When it came time to turn the assignments in, I would get close and float the paper and see where it landed. Apparently, I was a lousy shot because 40 assignments didn't make it in. Final grade in the class: A.

I was throwing assignments in the recycle bin for the same reason I suspect Obama threw the first debate: to create a hole that I had to climb out of and thereby keep it interesting. Obama, most of his biographers agree, has a great capacity for boredom in government but really enjoys campaigning. Given the Republicans' free-fall in the polls lately, if Obama had put Romney away in the first debate, that would have effectively ended the campaign.

Instead, Obama has turned this into a real fight. Romney will get more money and a bump in the polls and Paul Ryan will rip the hair plugs right out of Joe Biden next week in their match-up. And then Obama and Romney will face off again in front of a townhall audience. Literally every watcher will wonder if Obama will bring his A-game. This approach may be reckless or arrogant or any number of other things that give political consultants heart palpitations. It's also one hell of a way to stave off boredom.

—Jeremy Lott is editor of Real Clear Books, Policy and Religion.

  • Is this satire?

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  • I could easily imagine the Obama team underperforming in the first debate to avoid peaking early. Now Romney has nowhere to go in the next two, and Obama just let him talk and talk, i.e. lie and lie. They have enough material to make new attack ads every day for the next month.

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  • No disrespect to anyone--I favor civility -- but this is perhaps the least likely explanation for what happened. It's just totally implausible. It's like a closer coming into a baseball game with the tying run on base and saying, "You know what, we're a better team than those guys anyway, I'll just groove one to see what happens." It's just so silly to think that a politician would give up an advantage that, once surrendered, may never be recaptured. The far more logical explanation--light years more logical--is that Obama had a bad night. In the last month or so, he has delivered a major convention address, a major address to the UN, campaigned non stop and, oh yes, run the country. His debate preparation most likely lagged. Again, no trying to be harsh, but this is silly stuff.

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  • I know Al Gore's 'altitude' theory has been ridiculed (and I am loath to ever agree with anything he says). But I grew up in another mile high city (Albuq. NM) and it is relatively common even for otherwise experienced travelers to misjudge the need to acclimatize. I knew an emergency room psychiatrist who occasionally had to treat tourists with temporary psychosis from what was in effect altitude sickness. Whether it explains Obama's poor performance or not, it was shockingly foolish for him to fly to Denver only hours before an event that quite clearly would place demands on breath control.

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  • This is most likely correct, because we know the Affirmative Action President (tm) is the greatest debater in the world. He's beaten so many high talent debaters like Alan Keyes and John McCain.

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  • I hope either you are kidding or that you are kidding or, if not, you are not representative of the viewership of this site. Either way, dumb comment. The only question is whether it is the result of a poor sense of humor or a hateful nature.

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