I would have watched the first presidential debate at home, but since the couch I’ve been sleeping on sits in front of a shitty old TV that no longer works and the internet in New Orleans is extremely spotty when you’re stealing it, I had no choice but to head down to the R Bar and catch it on their big screen. My co-conspirator, Clark Allen rolled with me to the dimly lit bar, where we snagged a table in the back to watch the political beauty pageant in style.
We were looking forward to what was sure to be a debacle, because watching a presidential debate in a city like New Orleans is always a peculiar experience. The city is the liberal heart of an otherwise conservative state, and after all the bullshit that it went through during Katrina, heightened by the recent visit of Isaac, they have an extremely jaded sense of national politics. New Orleans shouldn’t be considered a part of Louisiana, let alone America, and people are up in arms over the state of affairs here. It’s like a battered and bruised Puerto Rico that for some reason has the right to vote.
The place was packed with people eager to hear the different takes the candidates have on what’s going on with the country. Photos of Ella Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, and Abraham Lincoln adorned the walls. Serious old people posted up in the back wall as the younger crowd mingled in the front. We were all waiting with anticipation for the same thing, and you could feel the electricity in the air.
Bam! Like that, the debates were underway. Obama came out with a blue tie and Romney with a red one. I wondered how each candidate decided what color to wear? Is blue a Democratic color and red Republican? What would happen if Obama wore a red tie? Would it confuse the public? Were the ties even made in America? I’m sure Romney’s wasn’t—he didn’t have his campaign buttons made here. Was his tie made in China? I couldn’t tell. For what it’s worth, he did have a bigger flag pin on his lapel, so I guess that was something.
I didn’t have time to focus on the details of their attire, the debate was already going and I had a job to do. First topic: the economy. Obama started talking about how it was his wedding anniversary as Romney arrogantly smirked on the split screen, and everyone knew it was on. CNN showed some crazy live Colorado undecided voter trend underneath the debaters, tapped directly into America’s moral pulse. I couldn’t wait to watch it flat line.
The crowd at the bar watched as Obama said the election was going to come down to the voters, which led to a decline in the trend feed. Classic. Romney got his first chance to speak and tried to be funny while also empathetic. He talked about the poor suckers who’d lost their job during Obama’s first term, as if he wasn’t personally responsible for sending jobs overseas while acting as the CEO of Bain Capital. He had a certain tone to his voice that made me uncomfortable for some reason, championing small businesses and a need for balancing the budget that made it seem like he was speaking directly to his party. There was a level of sincerity that he exuded that could only come from training seminars and self-help books.
Whether or not I agreed with him, Obama had a different aura—he had the ability as an orator to come off like he was speaking from the heart. He stressed the need to improve education, which I don’t think is an easy thing to argue with. He stressed the need to boost domestic power production while keeping in mind the energy sources of the future. He agreed that they had to deal with the deficit, but questioned how to do so without hurting people. Romney beamed on his left like he had the answer. As soon as he opened his mouth, things took a turn for the confusing.
According to his plan, there wouldn’t be any tax cuts. Wait, what? I thought that was the plan? Oh, it’s a neutral tax cut. Huh? Romney started getting personal and you could hear it in his tone. It was like he wanted to yell at Obama. Why so emotional, pal? He was gushing to the point of sounding flustered. Taxes need to come down for individuals and corporations (which are the same things on paper in this country) and there weren’t enough permits for drilling on government lands, like say, Yellowstone. “By the way, I like coal,” he said, which abstractly is a really weird thing to say. Then he said it would be immoral to not reduce taxes for high-income people if he did it for the middle class. Apparently, fair is fair.
Obama disagreed. He calmly broke down his plan without arbitrarily naming any numbers, and then pointed out all the gaps in Romney’s bat-shit arithmetic. God knows the American public had no clue where the cryptozoological data came from in the first place. He talked about how Mitt hadn’t defined what loopholes would have to be closed for the Ryan Budget to even approach a semblance of realism, pointing to independent studies that cautioned that the middle class would have to pay more under Romney’s plan.
Mitt took it personally again. “There’s all those studies out there,” he said dismissively, undoubtedly referring to those groups that check for facts or whatever.
He went into this whole number-one, number-two routine and then mentioned he had five boys, which obviously meant he was used to liars. I thought about how someone once told me the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Obama methodically explained how you can’t give cuts without raising the revenue deficit. “It’s math… it’s arithmetic.” He mentioned things like “commonsense” and “history,” and it was a stab that Romney didn’t like one bit. Barack advocated returning to the tax rates America had when Bill Clinton was president, maintaining it would help reduce the deficit, encourage job growth, and make it possible to fund education and energy independence. He then explained how incredibly wealthy corporations are considered small businesses under Romney’s plan.
That was a no go for Mitt. Those businesses employ a quarter of everyone employed in America unfortunately, and Mitt was going to discuss that by telling some story about some guy he knows who owns a small electronic store. Clark and I figured it was probably called Radio Shack. After his comments about not following Nascar too closely but knowing some of the team owners, it wouldn’t be surprising. But Romney was too busy with his points to give us the details. Number one, his tax cuts wouldn’t add to the deficit. Number two, he cares about people. He pointed out how shitty the last four years have been, and thanks more to an ex than the economy, I had to agree with him—it’s been a real bitch.
Lehrer finally interrupted and asked how the candidates would tackle the deficit. Mitt was glad he’d brought it up. He called it “a moral issue,” and asked what was to become of the next generation. Everybody knew he wasn’t talking about global warming. His presentation struck me as being very similar to a Mormon bishop, and I can say that because my grandfather is a Mormon bishop. Romney was bearing his testimony for the world to see, and I was waiting for him to say, “In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.” But instead he decided to attack the moderator.
“Sorry Jim,” he started, and told Lehrer he would cut funds for his program on PBS. He liked Big Bird too, but he wasn’t going to bankroll the bird. (Incidentally, Twitter blew up with a heavy Sesame Street trend within seconds.) This struck me as weird because it would involve cutting jobs. I guess funds directed to PBS don’t trickle down, certainly not enough to fund forty F-22s or refurbish an aircraft carrier.
Obama brought up how fucked the situation was when he first got in office, with two wars and an economic crisis fueled by New Orleans’ favorite president, George W. Bush, but Romney was not impressed. He got super personal again and pointed out how Obama had been in office for four years and hadn’t fixed anything. To Romney, all Obama has done is raise taxes and kill jobs, Romney stressed that he didn’t want to kill jobs—like anyone does? The exchange made me wonder what was in the works for Bain’s most recently acquired assets? Romney absolutely ruled out trying to get more federal revenue through taxes. “Absolutely,” he repeated, which made the bar laugh. The last thing he wanted us to be was Spain, which bothered me because siestas are something I can get behind.
Not to be out done, Barack brought up tax subsidies for oil companies. Did anybody think Exxon-Mobile needed extra money? What about corporate jets? More importantly, what about tax breaks for companies shipping jobs overseas? No revenue means we have to get rid of stuff, and the magnitude of tax cuts wouldn’t help us grow. Women seemed to trend higher on the bionic voter vein than men did on that one.
Romney countered with saying tax breaks for energy companies had been there for a hundred years.
“It’s time to end it,” Barack said to a bar full of applause.
Mitt didn’t skip a beat in justifying why Exxon-Mobile should keep their tax subsidies, and then went into the whole Solyndra fiasco. Finally, he dropped one of those zingers we’d been told he’d been practicing.
“You don’t pick the winners and the loser, you just pick losers,” he said with a shit-eating grin.
Whatever, let’s talk entitlements. Obama talked about his grandmother and some other boring stuff. Romney brought up his prospective changes to Medicare by prefacing with, “If you’re 60 or older, you don’t have to listen any further.” That was weird. So Obama brought it back to the numbers and basically said insurance companies are pretty clever, and they sort of screw people over a lot. Romney countered by explaining how private plans allow people to choose their own insurance companies. It was hard not to notice people in the bar complaining about being able to afford said insurance. Mitt believed it was best to bring capitalism into the Medicare world, because as he put it, “I believe in competition.” I don’t know how chemotherapy works as a sporting event, but I’m always up for seeing something new.
The two were throwing around the term Obamacare like everybody knew what it was. I guarantee you right now that more people know about Kanye’s sextape than what Obamacare even means. Obama discussed preexisting conditions and random rules insurance companies use to capitalize off of people’s sicknesses. He also pointed out that he’d seen a model similar to Obamacare work before, in Massachusets, after a governor named Mitt Romney implemented it.
Mitt laughed like a maniacal overlord. The difference between him and Obama is he knew how to work across the aisle. Obama was going to force people to lose insurance with companies they were really, really happy with and force them into medical death camps. From his point of view, private corporations were much more effective at bringing down prices than the government could ever be. At one point while discussing his point of view, he said, “Businesses—I mean, hospitals.” Thanks for summing it up for us Mitt. IHC was mentioned as a company he felt was doing it right, and I can agree because I owe them $100,000 dollars. But I guess that’s irrelevant.
OK then, great, moving right along. What about regulations? Should there be more or less?
Romney said a free market wouldn’t work unless you have regulations, following up by saying you can’t have people opening up banks in their garages, which believe me, I would if I could. It made me wonder if Mitt knew people who’d tried that before? Something told me he had. The comment got a rise from the crowd. Romney next said something about how although regulations were necessary, they were also harmful, and that the president had been excessively regulatory. Someone in the room yelled “SNOOZE!”—they must have been drunk. Obama pointed out that the whole economic crisis was brought on by the lack of regulation in the first place, and that if you thought there was too much regulation on Wall Street, Mitt Romney was you candidate.
It was at this point that I left to go to take a piss. I had Clark man my computer and take notes for me. Here’s all he wrote.
CLARK: People are throwing garbage at Romney’s side of the screen.
They were. People were grumbling, “Fuck this guy,” and tossing napkins and other harmless material at a guy on TV. Romney didn’t think we needed more teachers. Someone yelled “TEACHERS!” and threw a straw into the air. Mitt somehow reacted by rejecting the idea of him not liking great teachers, following up with something about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, none of which stopped the crowd. Obama used the word “extrapolating” while Romney smiled, and no one knew why was grinning. Who told Mitt to smile non-stop? Was that part of the plan or was it a reaction? What must it have been like to be in his debate preparation classes? I couldn’t even hear what he was saying anymore, people were jeering at him too loudly.
I needed a cigarette. The girl next to me was smoking a Parliament and I asked her very candidly if she might have one she could spare. I’d heard Southern hospitality was a real thing, and she was very quick to validate that claim. We shared her last smoke as we watched Obama talk about wanting to make college affordable, an interesting topic for everybody with gnarly student loans. Romney had said students should be open to borrowing money from their parents to help pay for school, like that was just some option that hadn’t occurred to us. How many Americans are have trust funds anyway? The number might be high in Williamsburg but we were in New Orleans, where a trust fund is myth or a plot device on Girls. Trash continued to fly at Mitt even when Obama was talking. He said something about how Romney hadn’t displayed the willingness to say no the extreme wing of his party, inciting a cheer throughout the bar. Finally, it was time for their closing statements.
OBAMA: Crisis, faith, undiminished confidence in the future, some lady in North Carolina, a company in Minnesota, autoworkers in Toledo and Detroit. Closing loopholes, responsibly balanced deficit, everyone gets a fair shot, some shit about how at least he’s fucking trying.
ROMNEY: Dramatic cuts would be devastating and he won’t do that—he’ll keep America strong. Two paths diverging in a yellow wood. Obama=Doomsday, Romney=Savior. Obamacare will kill us all. Military. Numbers.
According to the time clock, Obama won with a 42:50 mark versus Romney’s 38:32. I’d get into the ensuing media coverage but I’m sure Jon Stewart will take care of that for me. The press was busy in the spin room, and the bartender had put on David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” as everyone in the bar began sharing their take on the debates. I turned to the girl I’d bummed the cigarette from and asked her what she thought.
WENDY TAYLOR: “Clearly Mittens lost.”
Such was the general consensus. Later on, I got back to the couch I’ve been sleeping on and logged onto the internet. According to “notable” websites like Huffington Post and Yahoo, Mitt had won big time. Some 67 percent of people polled by CNN had said Romney had won the debate for reasons I couldn’t understand, leading me and my loaned education to speculate that either I’d seen something different, must blindly support Obama (which I don’t), or that our country is filled with fucking morons. My take? We’ll get into that later but I do wonder, who was polled? If I’d polled the R Bar, I’d certainly have different figures.
For the next debate, we’ll find a nice Republican city to hang out in, just to see if maybe it was a matter of venue that swayed our opinions. But I don’t care what the polls say—in something as important as the presidential debates, actual substance does matters. Obama might not have won, but in the game of ideas, Romney loses.