Following presidential debates, there’s a ritual known as “the spin room” where surrogates for the campaigns respond to reporters' questions. At tonight’s debate in Denver, they’re calling it “spin alley” as the space takes up a narrow portion of one side of the media room. It’s best to take everything from campaign surrogates with a grain of salt immediately following such an event, but here are some quick takeaways from the debate and a stroll through spin alley.
1. The Romney campaign is rejecting the idea the campaign is going to be a referendum on Obama’s first term and is finally presenting a bold and detailed competing vision.
“I was surprised that the president spoke in empty platitudes and had no vision about where he wanted to take the country, especially since he's been telling us this is a choice,” said Romney campaign senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom. “And the choice is do you want four more years like the last four years under president Obama, or do want a real recovery with more jobs and rising incomes for all Americans. And Governor Romney described in detail how he would make that come about.”
Previously, talking about a “choice” was the frame favored by the Obama campaign. The Romney campaign embraced it with tonight’s debate strategy, and it paid off in a big way. This should also hearten those who have criticized the risk averse Romney campaign for its unwillingness to be aggressive. Whether or not this is a permanent change in tone remains to be seen, but if it is a step in a new direction, it’s a heck of a start.
2. Romney is an underrated communicator.
In a refreshing change of pace for a campaign where both candidates have avoided substantive policy debates, things got really specific tonight. Obama tried to highlight Romney’s lack of specific details in key policy areas, but the overall impression tonight was that Romney was a details guy able to reel off incredibly specific—and lucid!—details about small business taxes and energy subsidies. We began to see why he was such a good businessman. Romney knows how to explain numbers and sell people on them.
After the debate, top Obama surrogates David Axlerod and David Plouffe were still peddling the idea to reporters that Romney was snowing people. But when asked about the alleged lack of details, Fehrnstrom was able to rattle off a litany of specific details cited by Mitt in the debate—everything from how he would block grant Medicaid to cut PBS. When Fehrnstrom gleefully said, “In fact, he told Jim Lehrer that he's going to cut PBS. The governor spoke in specific details, and the president gave us empty details”—reporters around him nodded intently.
3. Conversely, Obama is an overrated communicator who’s not very good with facts.
Obama’s policy knowledge did not appear nearly as deep as Romney’s. Obama kept going back to the well, citing the $5 trillion tax cut Romney allegedly wants even after Romney vigorously and convincingly repeated it.
Then he completely lost the plot on health care, claiming that Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan would increase costs for seniors by $6,000 even though that figure is based on a dodgy study of an outdated version of the Ryan plan. In fact, Ryan’s plan was specifically altered to address this exact criticism. (John McCormack explains why the figure is bunk here.) Then Obama cited how the government was modeling health care programs after successful private sector organizations such as the Cleveland Clinic that save money by integrating health care services. However, even though the Cleveland Clinic was one of the models for the Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) program being set up through Obamacare, the Cleveland Clinic has explicitly rejected the program—as have the other organizations often cited as ACO models, including the Mayo Clinic. “Officials at those tightly organized institutions have so many concerns with the proposed rule to create ACOs that they doubt that they will participate,” reported CQ last year.
Romney campaign health care policy adviser and a former top Department of Health and Human Services official, Tevi Troy, was stunned by how bad Obama’s answers were on health care.
“Obama didn't even explain his plan well. He couldn't even use the word ‘exchanges’, he called them group health plans or something. He seemed very out of it on health care,” he told THE WEEKLY STANDARD. Troy also notes that he wasn’t able to effectively challenge Romney on health care, either. “It seemed like Obama set him up with a big fat softball, where he said, 'Well, Governor Romney you did the same thing in Massachusetts’ and Romney was ready. Anybody who's followed this race knows what Romney's going to say to that. ‘I didn't raise taxes, I didn't cut Medicare,’ and he added this new point—‘I did it in a bipartisan way.’ Obama had never even heard this was a possible response. I don't know what John Kerry was doing in debate prep.”
Former Democratic congressman and Romney supporter Artur Davis was even more direct about the problem. “President Obama is supposed to be greatest communicator in American politics, but you can't be a great communicator unless you have great things to communicate. The reality is that President Obama struggled tonight because his his record has struggled.”
4. Even the Obama camp is more or less conceding it was a beatdown.
You would expect a gleeful GOP after the debate, and they did not disappoint. Davis was bold in declaring victory. “This was the best performance by a political candidate in a debate since Bill Clinton in 1992, so I'm being perfectly bipartisan about this,” he said. “For people who love to score these things like ball games, Mitt Romney pitched a shutout tonight.”
Now you expect even the newly minted Republicans in spin alley to be doing about 30,000 r.p.m. after an event like this. What is telling is that Obama surrogates were alternately candid and unconvincing. Asked by reporters about whether Obama came off as too “professorial” and aloof during tonight’s debate, Obama senior adviser David Axelrod said, “I’ll leave that to the theater critics.”
Obama senior adviser David Plouffe was asked if he thought the debate was a “defining moment.” He responded, “We don’t believe in defining moments.” Which is odd, because they thought that Mitt Romney’s off-the-record comments at a private fundraiser were such a defining moment they’re now running millions of dollars worth of ads based on them.
But perhaps the biggest admissions of defeat were non-verbal. As the clamor in the press room wound down, nearly a dozen Romney surrogates were still chewing reporter’s ears off in spin alley, while Axelrod was the only Democrat left talking to reporters.
Davis noticed an even bigger tell. “Any politician who's been on a debate stage knows that the guy who lost is the first one to get off the stage,” he said. “Barack Obama got off that stage as quickly as he could tonight.”