Oct 23 2012

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Obama vs Romney – The Final Round

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The Last Clash of 2012

In our 24/7 culture, life has become a zero-sum game. Each tactical move is assessed as a success or failure, and rarely do we link them together to understand if there was a more significant purpose.

Such was the overlay for last night’s third and final presidential debate.

The instant analysis was quick and unforgiving.

President Obama was primed and ready for verbal combat. POTUS dominated the 90 minute session with scathing critiques of Mitt Romney’s plans and record, mixing foreign policy with domestic policy. He was aggressive and sharp – prepared and present.

In contrast, Romney was subdued and almost hesitant. Instead of coming out with an equally strong critique of the President’s foreign policy record, Romney passed up golden opportunities, particularly on Libya, to highlight the President’s contradictory and ad hoc foreign policy. He even refused to call POTUS out on claimed successes that were either exaggerations or misstatements of the official record.

But perhaps worse, Romney had the disturbing habit of agreeing with Obama on almost every topic. It didn’t just bother Republicans who were looking for the obvious take down – four years in the making – but even the President, who seemed to grow more frustrated as he grew more perplexed at Romney’s general assent.

By the end of the evening, it was clear that the aggressive Obama had bested the passive and concurring Romney.

The instant poll by CNN seemed to bear this out with a plurality of voters saying Obama had won the final contest, 48-40 percent. In the zero sum game of the debates, it was a reassuring narrative of an ever stronger Obama making an audacious come back after the disastrous first debate, to finish strong, right on time with two weeks to go before the election.

But is that the whole story?

What if Romney doesn’t play according to the media narrative and the 24/7 cycle? What if, instead of seeing each event as a unique contest judged on its own merits, there was actually a strategy in play.

In this campaign, we have heard a lot about Romney’s business career and his reccord. Amazingly, what has often gone uncommented upon are the professional tools that Romney had to rely upon to create the record of success that he has clearly enjoyed.

Say what you will about his career, Romney was not handed a pile of cash and connections where a phone call brought riches. He worked for his success. And to do that, he had to master the art of business from the ground up. If you think about that, then the first debate success shouldn’t be such a surprise.

Of course, just by showing up Romney demolished Team Obama’s $140 million investment in a Romney caricature.

But what Americans saw more than anything was Romney as a salesman – making a pitch as he no doubt did countless times in his career, about an opportunity he believed in. It requires discipline, optimism, total command of the facts and the ability to summarize clearly and succinctly. This Romney did to devastating effect in the first debate, and in the details on the second.

The other indispensible tool that Romney instinctively understands, respects and applies is strategy.

Whether it is the best way to advance a business proposal or to acquire and run a company, everyone knows that there cannot be success without a coherent plan.  The same holds true in a presidential campaign, though few have given Team Romney any credit for it.

So, how does a more passive and agreeable Romney fit into a debate strategy, let alone a campaign strategy with only two weeks left? At first glance, it’s completely counter intuitive, not even thinking through the media mania over declaring a winner.

But the fact is, as you step back, Romney didn’t need to “win” the final debate.

The former governor crushed Obama in the first contest, and won on points in the second. The pressure in this final debate was on Obama – his last real chance to change the dynamics of the race, which have been trending toward Romney since October 3rd. With a strong performance, and hopefully a mistake on Romney’s part, POTUS could ride to November 6th not defending his own record but stoking uncertainty about Romney’s leadership capability.

But Team Romney knows – as it has said almost from the beginning – that the election will turn on the economy, not foreign policy. The overriding goal for Romney then, was not to contest the President on every point, where any sitting president already has an advantage, but simply to come across as a credible Commander in Chief, informed, grounded, reassuring.

This Romney did.

Indeed, at certain points in the evening, it seemed that Obama and Romney swapped roles, with Romney taking on the mantle of the measured calm of a president, while the actual President appeared as a scrappy, aggressive challenger.

Not a good visual.

And it’s true; Romney didn’t tear into Obama’s failed record, and more often than not appeared to agree with POTUS, in direction if not detail. But in doing so, Romney gave Team Obama nowhere to go.

What was the media take-away from last night’s debate? What is the colossal disagreement between Romney and Obama that will fuel the news cycle? All you have are a series critiques from the President, ever growing in their distain and snark, about horses and bayonets, or empty bromides on policies of the past.

Sure, GOP faithful have heartburn that Obama got a pass on his four-year policy of puny-lateralism, but it served a greater good.

All that is left to talk about in the final two weeks is the economy.

Romney understood that last night where he again pressed home the economic argument between foreign policy questions. And, by aligning himself so closely with POTUS last night on foreign policy, there is no pot for Obama to stir today or for the next 300+ hours until voting begins. All that is left is the Obama record that the President has never attempted to defend, and by extension, the lack of any comprehensive Obama agenda to deal with the staggering budget and economic problems that are waiting ahead.

All Obama has are excuses and personal attacks.

It is not how you win elections.

So, Obama “won” last night. But the only win that really matters will be recorded on November 6th. Judged on that standard, does anyone think that the President assured his reelection with his performance last night?

Insulting, patronizing and mocking an opponent is simply not presidential. And a cargo container of zingers, bromides and empty rhetoric are no substitute for a clear plan for the future. The American people know the difference.

Romney played it just right last night, despite the media zero-sum game.

There is no topic left to discuss for the next two weeks but the economy. If polling is correct and the economy is the top issue for voters, the President is left with effectively nothing to say.

There is hardly a less enviable position for an incumbent president to be in, particularly when he is trailing in the polls.

Point Romney for having business smarts and applying them accordingly.


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