A Game of Groans

This week President Obama and Mitt Romney will come together, face-to-face, for the first time in front of the national audience. They will debate domestic policy at the University of Denver, moderated by PBS’ Jim Lehrer.

This debate is highly critical to both campaigns, but definitely more so for Romney, who has seen his opponent take the lead in national and state polls following the Democratic Convention and a widely-circulated leaked private donor meeting video where Romney asserted that President Obama would automatically win “47%” of the popular vote because they “are dependent upon government” and “believe that they are victims”. Romney knows that the three presidential debates are probably his last opportunity to change the direction of the election, and perhaps none is as important as the first one. Likewise, Obama knows the threat that a poor debate performance poses to his campaign; expect him to also be on top of his game.

Sadly, however, this debate has already been soiled by an inconceivable volley of false expectations coming from both campaigns. The idea is that each campaign wants to lower the expectations bar for their candidate while raising the bar for their opponent, thereby (if the theory is correct) easing the threshold for what is to be considered a win for their candidate (such a win would be therefore appear to be a surprise) and making any win for the opponent appear expected and non-noteworthy.

While this makes hypothetical sense, the simultaneous self-deprecation and flattery of the opponent (from both Obama and Romney) has become an utter sham. Putting it about as bluntly as possible, the president recently said “Governor Romney – he’s a good debater. I’m just okay”. Beth Myers, a senior adviser with the Romney campaign, has called Obama a “universally-acclaimed public speaker” and even Paul Ryan called him “a very gifted speaker”.

Those playing this game for Romney point to Obama’s experience as a law professor, Senator, and, well, President as sources of his experience with debating and oration. Frankly, Obama is widely known as a superb rhetorician and an intellectual heavyweight. Of course, it is just obvious that President Barack Obama, JD, and his godly tongue will have no trouble sweeping the floor with lowly former Governor Mitt Romney, a mere humble and fumbling businessman.

On the other hand, the Obama camp points to Romney’s recent (and numerous) GOP primary debates, where Romney is considered to have done well in shooting down whichever “not-Romney” candidate rose to challenge him. They remind the press that Obama hasn’t been in a national debate since 2008.  Oh yes, how could the windy and overly-professorial Barack Obama possibly stand up to the inspiring and intellectual Governor Mitt Romney, JD/MBA?

It sounds like garbage because it is. This is exactly the phony dance that both campaigns have been coordinating for days now, all in the hopes of buffering their candidate’s chances without concern for honesty and sincerity. The disingenuity that has issued forth regarding this debate is comical at best and simply disgusting at the worst.

Is this what our political system has come to? Candidates have to preemptively flog themselves just to avoid looking like they didn’t live up to expectations? They have to heap farcical and excessively positive praise upon their opponents in order to hamstring them? Please, the American people know better. Everyone knows that these are two very intelligent men; politicians today, but former giants within their respective spheres (Obama in academia and Romney in business). They are both skilled debaters, and while everyone knows that Obama is undeniably (at least, not according to the Obama campaign) the more natural debater, circumstances as they are lead this debate to be at the least an even fight. Frankly, this false lowering of expectations is not going to actually affect the way voters judge the respective candidates’ performances. Rather, it only serves to make both candidates look desperate and disingenuous.