By Yuval Levin, October 17, 2012 –
When the debate commission announced that this year’s town-hall debate—in which questioners would be selected from among undecided voters in the surrounding region—would be held in Long Island, NY, rather than in a swing state, it raised a few eyebrows. Undecided voters in Nassau County generally aren’t like undecided voters in Ohio or Virginia. They tend to be people who start from a liberal foundation but may be a little too populist to be comfortably Democratic voters these days, and so in some respects a kind of mirror image of what we normally think of as swing voters. The questions in Tuesday night’s town-hall debate certainly reflected that character. These were, on the whole, questions from disappointed Democrats. That didn’t necessarily advantage one candidate over the other: It meant some of the subjects taken up in the debate heavily favored Obama but it also meant that the tone of the questioners was almost uniformly disappointed with Obama, which is probably the most dangerous of all attitudes for the incumbent president.
These are both significant differences from the first Obama-Romney debate. I think the importance of the subject matter in that first debate has not been sufficiently remarked upon. If the Republican National Committee were to design a presidential debate this year, they would have it focused on the economy, jobs, health care, taxes, spending, and the role of government, which is basically what the first debate was about. It so happens that these are the issues that most concern voters in polls this year, so it’s not hard to see why Jim Lehrer chose them for the domestic-policy debate, but they are issues that naturally favor Mitt Romney, and although it’s certainly true that Obama’s low-energy performance and Romney’s very polished and forceful presentation were key to the outcome of that debate, the fact that the debate was basically fought on Romney’s territory surely contributed to both.
At the same time, however, that first debate—as any debate run by a member of American journalism’s upper class would be, and as the VP debate therefore also was—was basically run in a tone of deep skepticism about the plausibility and legitimacy of all non-liberal positions and views. It was a debate in which Mitt Romney had a lot to prove, and he basically proved it. That’s the situation of right-leaning office seekers in our politics most of the time.