There is a great deal of sturm and frankly, quite a lot of drang as well in the multitudinous debate commentaries floating around the internet right now. President Obama’s supporters are really upset about the fact that he seemed to a) lose, and b) let the other guy get away with a whole set of pants-on-fire lies that, they believe should have been called out on the spot.
Nietzsche once said, out of chaos comes order. More relevantly, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he also said that to go over, you must first go under. (Or something like that. Undergrad philosophy was a long time ago.) Perhaps, the counterintuitive conclusion in this case is in fact the correct one: Obama wanted to lose that first debate, and in doing so, he actually won it.
Consider the following:
1) First, an obvious point. Obama made no unforced errors during the debate. There’s no easily disseminated sound bytes that will haunt him until November. He didn’t look at his watch. He didn’t sigh audibly. He continued to not be Al Gore (a key point that will continue to help ensure fair treatment from the media).
2) He didn’t give Romney a chance to rebut the 47% comment. While many wanted him to use it during the debate, I actually agree with Dan Nexon that this would have been a miscalculation of Mondalian proportions. Much better to save it for the air war, where there is no rebuttal.
3) He’s reminded his supporters not to be complacent. One of the background concerns coming into the final weeks of the election was that, with polls, models, and InTrade all showing a comfortable, but not invincible lead for Obama, Democrats would be lulled into a false sense of security. Volunteers would relax, get out the vote efforts might slow down, media proxies might wander off talking points on their next appearance on The Situation Room, and so on. Well, he’s scared the bejeezus out of them all now, so problem solved!
Speaking of surrogates, Obama let those lies slide by so that he could appear presidential, and leave the lie detecting to others. Ideally, to Bill Clinton. Actually, maybe someone should see if they can get Bill on the phone right now.
4) There’s no denying that he has REALLY lowered expectations for the next debates. Many of the most common talking points in the run-up to last night’s debate was the importance of reducing expectations for both sides. This largely took the form of the highly entertaining war of the compliments, in which each campaign sought to out flatter the other.
Perhaps Obama’s simply taking this strategy to the next level. Last night’s debate was the first in a series of three. What better way to control expectations for subsequent debates, than by getting pasted in the first one? After last night’s performance, all he has to do in the next debate is utter the phrase “I have to take issue with what Governor Romney just said,” or something to that effect. Then PRESTO! He’s a fighter. He came out with energy. On both style and substance, he’s a winner.
5) Speaking of narratives, Obama knows that the press abhors a stale narrative every bit as much as nature abhors a vacuum. He knew that sooner or later there would have to be a turning point go against him so that bloggers, and journalists, and journo-bloggers could write about how the race was tightening, how the outcome was anyone’s guess, and so on. So, it only makes sense to try and time the switches in narratives in his favour. If he had won the first debate, he would have just pushed the change in narrative closer to the election. This way, he takes care of it now, and sets himself up perfectly for a final switch back towards the incumbent, just in time for November.
Bottom line? it could just be that, while the rest of the world is playing checkers, President Obama is playing chess. Against God. Or possibly Zarathustra.