I watched last night’s debates on PBS, so it’s possible my perception was warped by the atmosphere of measured consideration. I had also just come from yoga and spent the first 20 minutes seeing each candidate as a big turkey leg, but other than that my memory is clear: Barack Obama looked composed if a little sluggish, and Mitt Romney was frantic. He talked over moderator Jim Lehrer and did that breathy puff-laugh he does when he can’t believe people are still asking him questions. Then I watched the post-debate commentary and learned that Romney actually won.
He didn’t actually advance more compelling arguments, of course. He continued to discuss his magical-thinking tax plan, in which the massive revenue shortfall of his 20% across-the-board tax reduction is offset by “accounting for growth.” He also lied a lot. Neither candidate would have won a truth-telling contest, but Obama at least cited evidence to back his claims. Romney just kept insisting that once he becomes president, everyone will get jobs and tax cuts and America moving again.
Yet somehow he won. On the PBS after-panel, everyone agreed that even though Obama made more sense and advanced more ideas, the American people would be bored by his technocratic numbernese. Romney, who talked over Jim Lehrer like a customer service rep talking over your grandpa, was “energetic.” His enormous, glistening face apparently made him easier to relate to than Obama, who was “flat.” Sure, Romney was infuriatingly vague to people who follow politics, but those people agreed on TV that stupid America would eat him up.
It’s an oddly self-fulfilling assessment. Even though high school forensics coaches and pundits alike thought Obama won the argument, this morning’s news insists that Romney won the debate. The experts don’t think that, but they think people think that. It’s a guessing game in which the guesser cannot be wrong: first you imagine how the American public will interpret events, and then you tell them that’s what happened.
Then you go back to deploring the state of contemporary journalism. Consensus that Obama bored the stupid is not unanimous, of course. There are the usual outliers (pun!): Erick Erickson of RedState would have you believe that Romney eviscerated Obama with facts as America cheered, and Huffington Post is aggregating silver linings. Those sites traffic in the sort of cynical, audience-pitched news that respectable journalists deplore. The fourth estate will collapse if reporters and pundits simply tell people what they want to hear. The only responsible course is to predict what people will think and tell them that.
Perhaps, though, I am the outlier. Maybe my smirking disdain for Mitt Romney colored my perception of his arguments. Maybe I follow politics too closely to see the big picture or—more likely—I am more susceptible to statistics and wonkery than the average voter. Still, this morning I cannot help but think that the tail is wagging the dog. The more I read the news, the more I think that my own impression of last night’s debates was just wrong. It’s a disturbing feeling on several levels.