After the 2008 vice presidential debate, Sarah Palin was criticized by the media for her unwillingness to deviate from prepared talking points and address what her opponent was actually saying. According to McCain campaign strategist Steve Schmidt, Palin’s approach was by design. Convinced that Palin wouldn’t have sufficient time to learn all the policy specifics, McCain’s advisers wanted her to play it safe and stick to prepared talking points.
During Wednesday night’s presidential debate, we saw Obama use this same strategy. In fact, Obama refused to deviate from his prepared talking points, even when discussing the very programs he promoted and signed into law. And while it’s doubtful that Obama initially planned to use this strategy, once the debate was underway, he likely realized that he vastly underestimated how prepared Romney would be. At that point Obama wasn’t just playing it safe to avoid losing; he was playing it safe to avoid a total catastrophe.
Obama’s dependence on his campaign talking points became obvious early in the debate after the moderator, Jim Lehrer, asked Obama to “respond directly” to Romney’s “trickle down government” barb. Instead of responding, directly or otherwise, Obama delivered a tiresome monologue about improving education.
The most obvious example of this talking point strategy, however, came when the debate turned to the Dodd-Frank financial regulations Obama signed into law. For those not keeping score at home, Obama touts Dodd-Frank as one of his signature achievements. Yet, when it came time to discuss the bill, Obama became uncharacteristically shy about addressing any of Romney’s specific arguments.
When Romney claimed that Dodd-Frank gives the five largest U.S. banks a blank check from the government, Obama mostly ignored it. Obama also couldn’t be bothered to address Romney’s claim that the bill’s language is so vague that banks are now afraid to issue mortgages. Instead, the president resorted to the generic talking points we’ve heard a thousand times before about reining in reckless Wall Street behavior to avoid further bailouts.
Are we to assume that Obama agrees with Romney’s criticism of the bill? And if so, why wouldn’t Obama try to remedy these problems? I think the safer assumption, however, is that Obama has no idea what’s inside the gargantuan Dodd-Frank bill, aside from those bits about “reining” in Wall Street’s “fat cats.”
Obama didn’t fare much better when the debate turned to his stimulus bill. Romney, seemingly shooting from the hip, claimed that he “thinks” almost half of the green companies the Obama administration invested in went bankrupt. It was actually only three out of 16 that went bankrupt. Fortunately for Romney, Obama didn’t know this. Instead, Obama reverted back to his tired, yet ever inviting, talking points: middle class, infrastructure, can I call you Joe?
What’s more, even when Obama knew he was right, he still wouldn’t confront Romney on his mistakes. After Obama accurately made several references to a tax break for companies that ship jobs overseas, Romney countered that he had never heard of such a tax break. Despite being right, Obama never challenged Romney on his mistake. Obama likely realized that he didn’t know enough about this tax break to discuss it in any real detail.
Twenty minutes into the debate, liberal website TPM noted that Romney was “uber-prepared. Double-uber prepared,” as if it were somehow bizarre that Romney took debating the president so seriously. And while Romney’s preparation probably didn’t surprise anyone, it was quite surprising for Obama’s supporters that after four years as president, Obama still wasn’t “double-uber prepared” to discuss his own policies.
In fact, Obama was so dependent on his talking points that it’s interesting to ponder what else Romney could have gotten away with saying without any rebuttal from Obama.
Mendy Finkel is a corporate attorney practicing in New York. He is a graduate of Columbia Law School.