This week’s first presidential debate, which seemed to have taken place years after the campaign started, seemed strangely disconnected from the months of political vitriol preceding it, not to mention the hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of advertising surrounding it. Belying the notion that we are living in a period of unprecedented polarization and political incivility, both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama seemed to go out of their way during the debate to treat each other with respect and to minimize their differences, rather than to exaggerate them.
The result was widespread dissatisfaction among political activists and the commentariat on both sides, those with a vested interest in politics as a zero-sum, stakes-never-higher blood sport. But the evening was a welcome reminder that there is a gravitational pull in American politics, perhaps encouraged by polling data in each camp, towards some measure of civility. Debates are theater, of course, and perhaps if left to their own devices the candidates would have mimicked their surrogates on any number of cable news shouting fests, but it was heartening to see the two men running for president feel pressured, once politics breaks out of the junkies’ inner circle and into the realm of broadcast, to adopt a far different tone.
And so, rather than treat each other like a mortal threat to the republic, both candidates seemed eager to emphasize their areas of agreement in the debate. On at least eight occasions, they explained which positions they hold in common (and that doesn’t include the time they agreed that they disagree on Medicare). Perhaps some of it was tactical: Obama said he agrees with Romney that corporate taxes are too high, and Romney conceded that Wall Street must have regulations. Both candidates have said these things before, and they went on to say what they would do differently than their opponent. But in a debate that sought to draw out their differences, moments like these positioned the candidates closer to the center, and toward each other, than we’ve seen yet.
The effect was most pronounced for Romney—especially when he apologized for saying “Obamacare,” explaining he “use[s] that term with all respect,” as if people tuning in to watch hadn’t followed politics the last two years (and the point is that plenty haven’t!). On policy, one of his biggest shifts, as policy analyst Maggie Severns notes on New America’s Early Ed Watch blog, was his promise not to cut federal funding for education. After making statements in April that he’d either consolidate the Department of Education “or perhaps make it a heck of a lot smaller,” Romney went so far last night as to praise Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for his work on the Race to the Top initiative.
On the other side, Obama’s critics panned him in post-debate analysis for not going on the offensive as Romney sidled to the center. Chris Matthews’ rant on MSNBC best captured (or perhaps parodied) the left’s frustrations. The president’s supporters wanted to see him take control, confront Romney, and unload some zingers. But the effect of keeping it civil, even if it meant appearing weaker on stage, may be more beneficial in the long run. Obama has shown before that he can be snarky in conversation. His comment in the 2008 Democratic primary that challenger Hillary Clinton was “likable enough” drew heavy criticism and is credited with his later defeat in the New Hampshire elections. So even if he could have done more to challenge Romney, that attack strategy could have backfired.
There was a good deal of detailed substance, too, for a debate taking place in a campaign accused of lacking it. Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, was quick to praise the evening as a “substantive and serious dialogue about how to put America back on a sustainable fiscal path.”Of course, there were pointed disagreements, as there should be. . Romney said the president was not entitled to make up his own facts regarding Romney’s budget plan. Obama flashed his sardonic side when he said Romney would have a busy first day in office with everything he wanted to repeal.
With two more debates, there’s still plenty of time for the nastiness of the surrounding campaign to filter into the personal exchanges between Romney and Obama. But for now we’re left with the images of the two families lingering onstage after the debate, seeking to convey to the millions of Americans tuning in that they respect each other, and can disagree about things in an agreeable manner, and maybe even work together on some problems in the long run. One can only hope.
Photo credit: Reuters/ Jason Reed