The Empty Chair Speaks
The consequences of being in over one's head are hilariously illustrated in the noir classic The Third Man (1949, directed by Carol Reed -- not, as some believe, Orson Welles.)
Pulp-western writer Holly Martins, arriving in post-WWII Vienna to take up a job his childhood buddy Harry Lime had promised him, is left to his own devices after Lime dies under mysterious circumstances. Needing cash and a plane ticket home, Martins agrees to deliver a lecture on the modern novel to a local cultural association.
A writer who considers Zane Grey his literary hero cannot be expected to know much about James Joyce and stream-of-consciousness techniques. Though clueless, Martins nevertheless gives it his best shot, hemming and hawing until the snobbish audience gets bored and leaves -- except for a couple of thugs in trench coats.
Now, imagine that Martins had shared the stage with a literary critic -- e.g., Joyce expert Harry Levin, taking turns to answer questions from the audience -- a town hall debate on the modern novel. It would have been apparent right away who the real thing was and who the impostor. Martins' bumbling answers would have drawn laughter.
The president did a Holly Martins in Denver.
But wait -- it's worse than that.
President Obama after nearly four years in office is supposed to know a great deal about the subject matter of the evening's debate. It should have been easy for him to assess the status of economy and explain why re-electing him would fix the problems his first-term policies had failed to fix, while claiming that Romney would make things worse.
Instead, Obama was unfocused and ill at ease; he got lost in convoluted sentences and reacted with criticisms that Romney had addressed but minutes earlier. There was a clear and distinct impression that Obama was reading off a mental teleprompter rather than going with the flow. His body language suggested arrogance and condescension.
Many explanations have been offered for the president's incompetent performance. Al Gore wiped out the little credibility he had left by suggesting the altitude was to blame. Racist excuse-mongers claimed in all seriousness that Obama couldn't match Romney's vigorous performance without coming across as an angry black man.
Once the left's blood pressure returned more or less to normal -- except maybe Chris Matthews', owing to his near-apoplectic rant -- the line of march turned to pure Marxism. Romney and the rich in general manage to win only because of immoral tactics (such as lying) against the pure-as-the-driven-snow proletariat they exploit mercilessly.
Some have noted that Romney's fast start proved difficult to counter because Obama thought the barrage of negative campaign ads had left his opponent demoralized. This point reveals an important truth: a politician slow to react in a mere debate would fare poorly in a national emergency, as demonstrated by the post-Benghazi mess.
There is a chance that Obama himself came to Denver disheartened, having realized that his Middle East policy lay in tatters. Massive failure at home and now abroad can make for a serious one-two psychological punch. Maybe Obama performed poorly because it dawned on him that his presidency has been an utter failure. Hmmm...nah.
My own explanation why the president showed up to take the equivalent of a final exam unprepared is simple: he entered the White House as the most unprepared president in over a century and has stayed that way. His natural abilities are far more limited than Americans were led to believe, preventing him from learning much on the job.
On the first point, there's no need to go over the credentials of Obama's predecessors in any detail. The responsibilities that readied politicians from Teddy Roosevelt to George W. Bush for the highest office in the land are well-known. By comparison, Obama's stint as state legislator and his brief tenure in the Senate were utterly inadequate preparation.
On the second point, much has been made of Obama's allegedly stellar career at Harvard Law School, his election as president of the school's Law Review, and his constitutional law lectureship. Few bothered to see (let alone say) the obvious: Obama's academic fast track was due primarily to his status as an affirmative action candidate.
Let's face it: the University of Chicago and other elite law schools were under intense pressure to add underrepresented minorities to their faculties. Obama's offer to teach a course on race and law met a need. Politics is no different. As Joe Biden blurted out: "I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy ... that's a storybook, man."
Were some influential Democrats so enraged after the Denver fiasco that they entertained suicidal thoughts of asking Obama to step down? I'm sure of it. I'm just as sure they realized they had no alternative but to keep going ("Forward."), learn lessons from the first debate, and apply them to the next round at Hofstra University on 16 October.
- Democrats miscalculated badly in allowing a pampered amateur to wing it against a competent and experienced opponent who is able to hit the ground running. Obama will undergo extensive coaching this time, which means Governor Romney must prepare even more thoroughly.
- Without the teleprompter, Obama is lost. We can expect human versions thereof among members of the town hall audience, planted there to keep the president on message or remind him when he forgets something important. Team Romney must try somehow to minimize the number of Obama acolytes in the crowd.
- Moderator Candy Crowley from CNN is less likely than Jim Lehrer to let go of the reins. As part of the MSM faithful genuflecting before The Anointed One, she will try to stack the deck against Romney. With millions of women watching, the governor cannot afford to alienate Crowley. Charm and humor are called for.
- Topics not raised during the first debate, such as Bain Capital, the 47% miscue, and personal investments and taxes paid, are bound to come up. Romney should simply admit mistakes and challenge Obama to do the same. If the president declines, Romney must have a list ready. There are plenty of mistakes to choose from.