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      The Debate, Decoded

      October 4, 2012

      By Harry Cheadle

      Associate Editor

      As you know, the first of three presidential debates happened last night. While it wasn’t a sporting event where anyone was keeping score and there’s no objective way to determine who won or lost, Barack Obama definitely, definitely got his ass kicked. He stumbled over his words, kept talking in professorial, abstract terms, and sometimes jumped from topic to topic in jarring ways that made what was already a fairly wonky debate about tax policies and health care even more difficult to follow. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, appeared relaxed and confident, calmly scoring points and even cracking a few jokes. Agreement that Obama lost was so widespread he dropped seven points on the InTrade betting market. Meanwhile, moderator Jim Lehrer constantly got trampled on as the candidates both ignored his pleas for brevity and came close to telling him to shut up.

      But hey, what about the actual content of the debate—the words that got said, the policies that were argued over? Well, honestly, that stuff doesn’t matter. If you’re the kind of voter who cares about whether Medicare should go to a voucher system, the strengths and weaknesses of the plan proposed by the Simpson-Bowles commission, and how specifically we should reduce the deficit, you already know how you’re voting and don’t need the TV’s help at this point. The job of the candidates was to sound convincing and presidential enough that the mythical undecided voter is like, “Boy I like that fella. Straight-shooter all the way, mmm-hmm. I like the cut of his suit. Jobs and so on—I’m for that and so is he.” Appearing to have a substantive debate about policy is good, but you don’t actually need to have that debate; it’s better to just confidently assert your version of reality while cracking a smile, and Romney did that way better than Obama.

       What’s more important than what they said is what the candidates meant and who they were talking to (Lehrer put on his marriage-counselor hat and told the candidates to talk to each other directly a few times, but they mostly ignored him, of course). What were they thinking and what were they saying with their words? I've translated a few key quotes below for those of you who don't speak fluent Candidate.

      What he said:
      Tonight’s 90 minutes will be about domestic issues, and will follow a format designed by the commission. There will be six roughly 15-minute segments, with two-minute answers for the first question, then open discussion for the remainder of each segment.” - Jim Lehrer, starting things off.
      What he meant:
      “The candidates will say whatever they want, because I am not going to be able to tell the president or the guy who might become president to shut up. Hang on, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”

      What he said:
      Now, it ultimately is going to be up to the voters, to you, which path we should take.” - Obama, in his opening statement.
      What he meant:
      “It is going to be up to you, the voters of Ohio, which path we should take. Almost nothing else matters, which is why I’m not going to be too worried if the next hour and a half is really bad for me.”

      What he said:
      “Virtually everything he just said about my tax plan is inaccurate.” - Romney, responding to Obama accusing him of wanting to cut taxes by $5 trillion and hurt the middle class.
      What he meant:
      “I’ve been vague enough on specifics that I can deny whatever anyone says about what I want to do and you have to do a lot of work to prove me wrong. And if I get into a childish ‘Yes it is! No it isn’t!’ argument with the president, it makes me look like I’m his equal. Boom.”

      What he said:
      “Jim, I–you may want to move on to another topic” - Obama, to Lehrer
      What he meant:
      “Damn, this is going even worse than I thought it would. Can we wrap it up so I can go back to my job of trying to talk Israel out of bombing Iran?”

      What he said:
      “I like coal.” - Romney, talking about energy policy.
      What he meant:
      “I’ve never had to work in a coal mine or coal-burning power plant or lived close enough to those things to have to deal with the smoke and pollution. I do like some guys who run the coal industry though.”

      What he said:
      “High-income people are doing just fine in this economy. They’ll do fine whether you’re president or I am.” - Romney
      What he meant:
      “Everyone knows who’s paying for this campaign on both sides, right? Good.”

      What they said:
      Simpson-Bowles, the president should have grabbed that.” –Romney
      “That’s what we’ve done, made some adjustments to it; and we’re putting it forward before Congress right now.” - Obama
      What they meant:
      “It’s OK to praise the Simpson-Bowles Commission’s recommendations to lower spending and raise taxes now, after both of us essentially rejected that report. It’s kind of like how everyone is supposed to love Reagan now that he’s dead and gone. Politics is fun!”

      What he said:
      And by the way, if a state gets in trouble, why, we could step in and see if we could find a way to help them.” - Romney, after praising state governments as “laboratories of democracy.”
      What he meant:
      “I don’t care that my own party explicitly said, in its platform, that ‘the federal government must not assume the State governments’ or their political subdivisions’ financial responsibility.’ I’m just going to assume that it’s going to be a piece of cake to get Congress to agree to bail out the few states that are in massive trouble. Or I am just sorta spitballing here. No one will remember I said this.”

      What he said:
      Right now you can actually take a deduction for moving a plant overseas.” - Obama
      What he meant:
      “I have forgotten that as the incumbent, it might not be the best idea to complain about how lousy things are right now, when I am the president.”

      What he said:
      You don’t just pick the winners and losers; you pick the losers” - Romney, referring to Obama giving subsidies to Solyndra, a green energy company that later went bankrupt.
      What he meant:
      “Damn, I delivered that pre-written zinger pretty well. I’m doing pretty well here. Ann better be ready for some good-ass post-debate fucking. Little Willard is getting excited already.”

      What he said:
      [Grins widely] - Obama, in response to Romney’s “you pick losers” line.
      What he meant:
      “Fuck you, you narrow-ass, white-bread, teetotaling motherfucker. I’m trying to keep America from getting destroyed by your party’s insane, shortsighted environmental policies and you’re throwing me Fox News-style jokes? I hope you get this job, you Mormon sack of skin, so you can fucking eat as much shit as I have for four years.”

      What he said:
      With regards to young people coming along, I’ve got proposals to make sure Medicare and Social Security are there for them without any question.” - Romney
      What he meant:
      “I am well aware that most people in their 20s assume the safety net won’t be there the same way it was for their parents. I don’t give a shit, because that entire generation hates me anyway. When I say ‘young people,’ I mean people in their 40s and 50s who have a shot at getting Medicare while it’s still good.”

      What he said:
      “These are folks who’ve worked hard, like my grandmother. And there are millions of people out there who are counting on this.” - Obama on people who are on Medicare and other government programs.
      What he meant:
      “Gotta pander to the old folks. Gotta pander to the old folks. Gotta pander to the old folks.”

      What he said:
      Well, four years ago when I was running for office I was traveling around and having those same conversations that Governor Romney talks about.” - Obama, talking about problems with health care.
      What he meant:
      “‘Things are the same as they were four years ago’ is an OK thing for a sitting president to say? Or not?”

      What he said:
      The genius of America is the free enterprise system.” - Obama
      What he meant:
      “Jesus, what am I saying? This is a Republican talking point! Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. I don’t even know what’s going on.”

      What he said:
      Look behind us: the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. [gestures to the backdrops] The role of government is to promote and protect the principles of those documents.” - Romney
      What he meant:
      “Ohhhhh, shit. I just brought in the founding documents of the country in a statement that’s just cheesy enough. Look at that fucking shit! Poll bump, here I come!”

      What he said:
      “I believe we must maintain our commitment to religious tolerance and freedom in this country […] We’re a nation that believes we’re all children of the same God.” - Romney
      What he meant:
      “No non-Christians are gonna vote for me anyway due to my party having a very influential theocratic wing, so I guess I might as well speak directly to the GOP loonies—they’ll understand that by ‘religious tolerance’ I mean that birth control is bad.”

      What he said:
      “[Under Romney’s policies] there may not be as much of a focus on the fact that folks like myself, folks like Michelle, kids probably who attend the University of Denver.” - Obama on federal subsidies to students.
      What he meant:
      “If you’re black or young, Romney doesn’t care about you. I hope you know that. You guys are going to vote, right?”

      What he said:
      “There’ll be no tax cut that adds to the deficit […] I do not believe in cutting our military […] I don’t have any plan to cut education funding and grants that go to people going to college. […] I want to take that $716 billion you’ve cut and put it back into Medicare.” - Romney
      What he meant:
      “I won’t cut any of the things our government spends money on and I’ll cut taxes and the deficit won’t increase. The great thing about this country is I can say that and you guys are obligated to take me seriously. Ha! For real though, fuck Big Bird."

      What he said:
      “We’ve barely got three minutes left […] the fact is, government—the role of government and governing—we’ve lost a “pod,” in other words, so we only have three minutes left in the debate before we go to your closing statements.” - Lehrer, as the clock winds down.
      What he meant:
      “Whoops. I really fucked up quite badly here, so we won’t be able to talk about what you guys would actually do to get your policies passed into law in a legislative environment where it’s almost impossible to get things done. Oh well, that probably wasn’t the most important part of tonight anyway, right?”

      @HCheadle

      More on the political squabbling that will doom us all:

      The Most Depressing Things in the Democratic Party Platform

      The Silliest, Most Terrifying Things in the Republican Platform

      Make Politics Stop, Please 

      -

      Topics: 2012 debate, 2012 election, Barack Obama, mitt romney, Jim Lehrer, We're all doomed, politics, Denver debate, Big Bird

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