By Taylor Armerding
— Like every other armchair critic - and reportedly there are 55 million of us, which makes us "the 18 percent" (of the total U.S. population) - I have a few takeaways from the first presidential debate:
- The winner, but ... : Mitt Romney won. Even the moderate left, far left, and extreme left conceded that much.
But winning the debate does not make Romney the favorite. My guess is that he did well enough to get the attention of voters who are truly undecided, but it is going to take two more outstanding debate performances, plus a flawless final campaign month to actually make the sale.
- The teleprompter: This is a much bigger deal than anyone is saying. Virtually every pundit agreed that Romney was on his game and Obama was not. The president, they said, looked distracted, petulant, disengaged, tired, bored at times, confused, nervous, passive, meandering, and weak.
He lacked passion. He lacked aggression.
But very few - among them lefty comedian Bill Maher and right-leaning columnist Charles Hurt in the Washington Times - said much about Obama working without a teleprompter.
Maher sounded more mystified than angry, and Hurt delivered what has become the standard Republican jibe at Obama, which is that the president is lost without a script.
I agree that he was lost but disagree with the implication that this means the president just isn't as smart as he wants us all of us to think he is.
Smart is not the problem; Obama is brilliant. The problem is that even smart people, when they speak in public under a consistent set of circumstances, get used to it. When those circumstances change, it throws them off.
This may not be an exact parallel, but I've been trying to teach myself to "write" with voice-recognition software. I'm improving slowly, but I'm still lousy. That's because I've been thinking through my fingers, on a keyboard, for all of my professional life. It throws me off to think differently.
For the president, virtually every time he has spoken in public (with the exception of his rare press conferences), the teleprompter has been there.
So I didn't see him as disengaged, bored, or passive. I could practically see him mentally scrambling, trying to organize his thoughts - something he hasn't had to do for too long a time because it's all been there for him to read.
Obama is a pro at using the teleprompter, but its absence is a curse. It won't solve his problem to be more aggressive or more engaged. He has to be able to think on his feet. He is plenty smart enough to do it, but he is way out of practice. And it may take more than three weeks for him to get back into practice.
- Political language: "Whoever controls the language, the images, controls the race." That observation has been attributed to Beat poet and political activist Allen Ginsberg.
I doubt that Ginsberg and Jeane Kirkpatrick, the Democrat-turned-Republican who served as ambassador to the United Nations under President Ronald Reagan, were all that close. But they shared a common philosophy about language.
In response to a question about why socialist politicians were so successful against those who advocated the free market, even though free economies were demonstrably more successful than socialist ones, she reportedly said, "Their rhetoric is better than ours."
It shouldn't be. After several decades of covering big-government liberals, I know that words like "fairness" or "fair share," "social justice," "equality," "community," "economic patriotism," "we're all in this together," and "balanced" are almost all euphemisms for raising taxes on those who have been wicked enough to become successful.
Another favorite of Obama's is his call for "everybody to play by the same rules."
But they sound so comforting, so safe. Who could be against fairness, justice, and community?
Meanwhile, conservatives talk about independence, personal responsibility, self-reliance - all things President Obama and his supporters say amounts to telling the poor, elderly, and disabled, "Good luck. You're on your own."
If Romney doesn't challenge this feel-good, Orwell-speak, he will be in trouble. It shouldn't be that difficult.
When the president says he wants everybody to play by the same rules, he means the opposite. He wants one set of rules for the poor and middle class, and another, more punitive set of rules for "millionaires and billionaires," who he defines as those who make more than one-fifth of a million dollars.
Yes, both parties have signed on to the so-called "progressive" tax code. But it is more than disingenuous to say that this amounts to "the same set of rules."
Then there is "fair." Is it fair for unionized government employees to be able to retire in their mid-50s with a defined benefit pension and gold-plated health benefits for life, while the average private-sector worker has to stay on the job at least 10 years longer for lower pay and much lower benefits?
Columnist Mark Steyn has correctly pointed out that trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see, with a $16 trillion-and-growing debt, amount to, "looting the future to bribe the present."
How is that fair, or compassionate, to the coming generations?
How does that amount to, "We're all in this together"?
- Taylor Armerding is an independent columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.