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Cohn & Kirn Debate the First Debate

In a new feature, Jonathan Cohn, TNR’s longtime policy wonk, and Walter Kirn, a novelist covering his first presidential campaign, debate the week’s big political stories via Google chat. This week, they discuss Obama's disdain for Romney; Romney's talent for closing deals; and what roles the candidates would play on Sesame Street.   

Jonathan: Hi, Walter. So tell me - how did the debate play out in real America - by which I mean, not Ann Arbor – or Washington?

Walter:  If only I knew, Jon. Real America, wherever you happen to be in it these days, consists of a hive of screens and media portals, so I guess I'm seeing much the same things you are from my high bleacher seat in Montana. I do know that my girlfriend's relatives in Chicago, moderate republicans with small businesses -- marketing firms, etc. -- were on their feet cheering Mitt's pro-enterprise statements and his general mode of vigor and animation. Also, I heard from a couple women out here, not particularly political, that all Obama's looking down and looking away and general sense of detachment and withdrawal seemed impolite and unattractive. i noticed that too. Obama seemed to reserve the right to be alone when he wanted to up there, to pull away into some personal psychic closet and close the door. For me, what lost him the debate, in human terms, was not what he said, but the way he behaved when he wasn't speaking.

Jonathan:  Yeah, I heard from a relative -- smart, but not somebody who follows politics obsessively -- who was impressed with how detailed and sharp the debate was.  I'm sort of horrified that people would come away thinking Mitt was a mater of policy, given how much he twisted the truth and dodged questions, but I can totally see why.  If you don’t do this for a living, how the heck would you know? I wrote about the substance last night and will do so again tonight so I'm not going to go into that here.  Instead, I’ll do what everybody else is doing and ask—why did Obama look so flat? Debating has never been his best forum. James Fallows wrote about this a few weeks ago, in an Atlantic piece that anticipated this show with uncanny accuracy. But Obama just seemed like he didn't want to be there. And that surprised me. My impression has always been that Obama has genuine disdain for Romney, more than for most Republicans. I think he always respected McCain, if not for what he was saying in 08 than what he had said and done before. I think he thinks Boehner is a decent guy trapped in a horrible caucus.  I think he thinks Cantor is a snake but, let’s face it, Cantor knows he’s a snake and doesn’t try to pretend otherwise. But Romney is both without a core and self-righteous about it.  I think that pisses off Obama—although maybe it just pisses off me. Anyhow, I expected Obama’s disdain for Romney to fire him up for the debate. Clearly it didn't.

Walter:  Here's the main thing for me: as any casting director knows, you never can tell how to actors are going to seem once they're on screen together. Chemistry can't be predicted. Two people create a third reality once they're together, and last night that reality wasn't one that most people anticipated based purely on their sense of mitt as gaffe prone and awkward and Obama as fluent and assure.

Jonathan: Your point about the chemistry is exactly right. And it's been a while since Obama has been challenged in this way.  Hillary roughed him up pretty good in 08, but she was honest -- and Obama got better with time.

Walter:  Another thing: Romney's experience in business means he has had to mix it up, negotiate, sell, push, pull, and engage in all the myriad interactive modes that bring groups of people to a decision point or content them with a decision that's already been made in other words, relating back and forth may be better honed skill for him -- as opposed to solitary speechifying before a crowd, say. Obama, after fort years of being president, especially, may have lost some of his give and take, group-dynamic muscles even as he's kept in shape as an orator.

Jonathan:  Yeah, that's a really good point. Somebody on TV today mentioned that Romney knows how to close a deal, whatever it takes. He'll say what he has to say. I think this is a problem for Obama.  He thinks like a writer, so he's aware of nuance and instinctively wants to recognize it. I like that quality in an intellectual, not sure it helps in a politician.

Walter: As far as simple optics go, Romney's more angular profile worked well for him last night, emphasized by his habit of keeping his chin up, Obama was chin down most of the time, which made his head look like a finger sticking up out of a collar, chinless. The staging was all very strange. I felt like Romney was actually on the stage and Obama was in one of those odd isolation chambers they used to put contestants in on game shows.

Jonathan:  True. I also think, honestly, the format is part of the problem. I’m not sure how you improve the debate -- every format has problems. And lord knows I don't want a single anchor playing fact-checker. I just don’t trust them to get it right. Maybe just let them go after each other?  Or maybe have more of a panel-type format, with multiple questioners – and instead of newsy folks, get real experts. Or maybe people who clearly have opinions on left and right, so it’s it’s contentious.  I really don’t know.  I’m thinking aloud here.  But that format we saw on Wednesday, the usual one, ust lets these guys get off two-minute punch lines. It’s hard to deal with substance at a deep level. And it’s ard to keep them honest.

Walter:  It's amazing how different, to get down to psychological basics, our experience is of two people side by side in one place at the same time for a sustained and uninterrupted period as opposed to the impression we get of seeing them alone in alternation in all sorts of different settings and in short edited clips surrounded by commentary that creates expectations for what we're about to see and manipulates our responses to what we've just seen. Personally, I was blown away by how much difference the 'natural' staging made in my impressions of two individuals who I thought I knew. Obama, for one, struck me as almost an Obama double -- a kind of second-rate Obama double.

Jonathan: I wanted the dude who plays him on that Comedy Central series.

Walter:  As someone who debated a lot rather than play real sports in high school and college, i for one didn't mind Jim Lehrer’s performance. Hang back, let them do their thing, what's he supposed to be -- a couple's counselor?

Do you think maybe Naomi Wolf gave Romney one of her media manliness coaching sessions, maybe? Romney was damn alpha in his body language and whole affect, from posture to arm placement, and his tie had a kind of rakish slant to it sometimes. 

Jonathan:  So ... Big Bird. I wonder how that plays. Truth be told, Sesame Street probably could survive on its own. It's such a huge brand.  But other shows wouldn't and the network as a whole wouldn't.  Of course, as the parent of two kids who grew up on Elmo -- and as a kid who grew up pretending to be Super Grover, I was not happy.  The monster at the end of the book turns out to be mitt Romney.  Who knew?

Walter: You have to admire Mitt for his unrepentant hard-ass attitude toward small cuddly animals, whether they be real or puppets. Cable news could really use a few good shrinks and analysts to keep us informed on the unconscious, dream-logic level of the campaign.

I think a winner for Obama in the next debate might be to come out on stage stroking a guinea pig or a new kitten ask Mitt to hold it for a moment and see what he does. Flinches? Goes all flushed and starts to shake? Quickly hands it off to Ann? Shoves it on his pocket?

Jonathan:  So if Obama and Romney were sesame street characters, who would they be? I assume mitt is Bert, right?

Oops. My wife, looking over my shoulder, says I shouldn't be disparaging Bert. She says Romney is Guy Smiley.

Walter:  Obama seems like a Sesame Street guest host type. Someone who talks in a real soft voice as he reads from an alphabet book and who plays a straight man to cookie monster and so on. Then he sings the rainbow connection or whatever, with puppet birds landing on his shoulders.

Jonathan:  Oh, that’s good. Or maybe you have to change PBS children’s shows. Obama is Mr. Rogers. Won’t you be … my neighbor? At least that's how he acted in the debate.

Walter:  Romney actually reminds me of no current character, but I could see him being worked into the script as a big landlord who comes to visit his properties and tenements as part of some some review of his holdings. like this: Everybody's down on the street doing their multicultural thing and jumping robe and learning phonics and joshing with Oscar the Grouch, etc. when all of a sudden a long black Cadillac with tinted windows pulls up. The kids and puppets draw back, apprehensive. Then, slowly, one of the rear windows rolls down, revealing Romney in profile. People draw back, intimidated, but finally someone approaches and asks him who he is and what he wants. He offers his business card and says: Mitt Romney, Sesame Street Holdings, LLC. We own this place.

Everybody freezes. The jump ropes stop. Oscar pulls his can lid over his head. Children scurry off. the street is empty except for big bird, who is protective and territorial and has no other place to go. And Romney says to him: 'Don't worry, demolition and Stage 1 construction doesn't start for another year. You’ll have plenty of time to find another place.

At that point Romney's phone rings. he glances at the screen. 'Sorry, I have to take this,' he says to big bird. 'It’s an important business associate." he clicks on the phone. 'Good morning, Donald,' he says.

Jonathan: Ha. Well, on that note, I think I need to back to reading the debate transcript, and figuring out exactly what Romney said.