For Your Friday Political Discussion Consideration

A scenario for you:

1. Two weeks ago, Obama’s team looks at his position in the polls, realizes that both immediately and historically in the polling he’s likely to win re-election — likely enough that the money people in the GOP will soon figure that there’s no chance for Romney, pull their cash from the presidential campaign and send it to senate and house races in an attempt to keep the house (likely) and retake the senate (less likely but still achievable).

2. Obama’s people want to keep that from happening; they want the money mostly spent on Romney, who is a single target they can focus on and who has persistent weaknesses in polling, particularly when the electoral map is considered.

3. It has been discussed in political wonk circles that if Romney blows the first debate, the deep pocket GOP benefactors will pull their money out of the presidential race.

4. Obama’s folks are aware that there are three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate.

5. Therefore, a strategic decision is made to let Romney take the first debate — or at least to give him the chance to take the first debate — by having Obama underplay his hand. What losses he takes in the short-term polls can be mitigated in the two additional presidential debates and the VP debate, and by playing the electoral vote map rather than the national vote map. In the meantime, the GOP money stays in the presidential race rather than sent to the house and senate races, relieving potential pressure on those down-ticket races, and Obama’s folks get the advantage of having Romney spend his debating capital early, meaning there’s no where for him to go in the debates but down, and nowhere for Obama to go but up.

That’s the scenario: A massive rope-a-dope campaign designed not just to re-elect Obama but to give the Democrats a better standing in Congress.

Now: Your thoughts on the probability, wisdom, and implications of this (or something like this) being an actual political strategy by the Obama camp. Add them in the comments, please.




209 Comments on “For Your Friday Political Discussion Consideration”

  1. This is the part where I add caveats and warnings.

    1. I am positing this scenario for consideration, but my positing the scenario for the purposes of communal consideration should not imply that I personally necessarily believe that scenario (I have an opinion regarding its plausibility, but I’m holding it back for now). So if you have it in your head to attack me on the ground of how could I believe such a thing, you’re wasting your time. I am interested in your thoughts on the feasibility of the scenario, and then also whether such a scenario would have the intended effect.

    2. In answering, please try to compose an answer that is not ultimately indistinguishable from “WHOOOO GO TEAM MY POLITICS! TEAM NOT MY POLITICS SUCKS!”

    3. As always, if you’re not polite to each other while having this discussion, you will feel the tender caress of The Mallet of Loving Correction. I realize people are close to fever pitch at this point as far as political feelings are concerned, but regardless, this isn’t the place to lose your ability to be decent to other people. I thank you in advance for your cooperation.

  2. My option: such a strategy would be absurd and insane. A rational person wouldn’t deliberately take an action that would risk putting the retention of the presidency at risk for the sake of an indirect, contingent, bank-shot upside in lesser races. I can’t imagine the Obama camp doing such a thing (and if the roles were reversed, I can’t imagine the Republicans doing it either).

  3. I was thinking of the “rope a dope” strategy from another angle–getting Romney to publicly commit to moderation and untruths in the first debate and then using those public statements to advantage in the subsequent debates. The money angle is another interesting potential positive angle.

  4. My first thoughts of the presidential debate were exactly that: rope-a-dope. That thought came because, like I’ve said previously, that Obama provided substance over form, whereas Romney was all performance.

    For Obama to hand Romney a ‘give-me’, it can only be rope-a-dope, for which he’s so famous.

  5. That sounds more devious and shrewd on behalf of either party than I’d be comfortable giving them credit for; especially considering the Democrat party leadership has never particularly wowed me with their political acumen (This is the same party that lost to G. W. Bush in 2004).

  6. I started to type “I’d hate to think that Presidential politics could be that Machiavellian,” but then I realized what I was typing and cracked myself up. I think it’s an entirely plausible strategy, although I don’t have any opinions on whether it is a practical one or one in play.

  7. I would like to scoff and say that this was impossible but I believe that the political class – left or right – disdains the citizenry and considers us sheep to be fleeced or cattle to be driven. So I don’t believe there is any existing moral barrier that would prevent it from happening. Biggest risk would be security. If anyone other than the president and a couple of advisers knew of the plan it would leak..
    For instance if they felt they had to advise the big money men so their own donor base wouldn’t close their wallets in dismay too many people would know. I have trouble imagining any more that there are candidates with strong enough character that they can resist the blandishments of the pond scum “campaign advisers”.

  8. Look at games one and two of the 1972 World Chess Championship. Fischer blew two games, then blew Spassky off the board. The same game is being played here.

  9. Actually, it’s well regarded that Biden won the debate, both on facts and form. These from the same people who said Romney won that debate on form.

  10. It seems unlikely in reality and dubious as a strategy. Granted, there was a lot of talk before the first debate about how debates “don’t matter” because too many people have already decided and whether their guy wins or loses won’t change their vote. But it still seems like a dangerous game to play when the stakes are this high…

  11. Hahaha. Good one Scalzi.

    Let me suggest a rope-a-dope of a different color:
    Romney lets the Obama team paint him as a fire-breathing demon with hurns for months; allowing them to suggest he killed a woman with cancer and is a heartless bastard in general.

    Then shows up at a debate viewed by 70 million likely voters who find he actually an intelligent, affable human who displays leadership without bluster.

    I have said here before, that the bias of indepents is against the President. All Romney had to do was show he was capable of being president which he did.

  12. An interesting argument but not really plausible. If you were looking to help out Democratic House and Senate candidates, you’d get far more bang for the buck with an overwhelming Obama victory (thanks to straight ticket voting) rather than this kind of bank shot.

  13. It is certainly a good explanation for Obama’s poor showing. In fact, the only good explanation I have heard.

  14. This could have been a very shrewd approach, but I’m skeptical for two reasons. The first is that the risk is just too high. The second is that it’s not clear to me that individuals running the Obama campaign would really have the interests of the greater DNC in mind as opposed o the much more direct interests of their individual candidate (to whom their own careers and prestige are also directly tied).

    As far as the risk being too high: this has clearly been born out by the polls following the debate, but I don’t think there’s ever been such a large response and so it’s not reasonable to attribute that projection to the Obama campaign prior to the debate. (In addition: it’s too early to say if Romney’s success in the polls will be enduring.) I think a more likely reason for the Obama campaign to have had a cautious attitude prior to the debate would be a sense of skepticism towards the polls due to the Bradley/Wilder Effect. This is the notion that black candidates tend to do better in polls than in the actual election, and while Obama’s victory in 2008 hopefully indicates that we’re moving beyond that point, I believe that most of the polls actually overstated his victory (so the effect is not entirely gone). Add to this the enthusiasm gap, and I don’t think the polls would have given the Obama campaign enough confidence in their candidate’s victory to intentionally throw the first debate in order to keep money focused on Romney.

    I think what really happened is a watered-down version of your theory. When you’re in the lead (as Obama was going ino the debate) you have more to lose from failure than you have to gain from victory. For that reason, Obama didn’t intentionally throw the debate, but he did play it very, very safe. That is why he didn’t bring up the 47% quote a single time: not to intentionally lose, but to avoid mistakes that might come from trying too hard to win.

  15. An interesting theory, but I don’t think the Democrats would so easily cede a debate for an unpredictable, future political benefit, and if they did, it has backfired on them in a big way. The reality is simply that Obama is not a good debater. He never was. He’s charismatic and he gives good speeches, but he doesn’t have a firm grasp of basic economics. Given his occupational background, how could he?

    More likely, the Democrats pushed for the debate topics to focus first on domestic policy (to get Obama’s glaring weakness out of the way early), and then later on foreign policy (where Romney is a bumbling fool).

    I think people are likely over-thinking what was simply a bad performance by a man who’s gotten accustomed to living in a bubble in which few people challenge him.

  16. I would totally believe that strategy in fiction. In reality, where Xanatos Gambits don’t work because you don’t have an entire writing team on Xanatos’s side… I don’t think it’s likely. As mentioned above, it’d be too risky (pulling your punches is tricky, especially if you’re not practiced in it, so you could fail harder than intended) for too low a reward (diversion of money is important, but not enough to risk the presidency on, with how much power keeps being concentrated in the office).

    But now I do want to see that strategy come up in fiction. It totally suits the chessmaster type of character in a setting where the author can make that strategy actually pay off as planned. In the real world, with its wacky chaos, delicate and complex plans usually aren’t the way to bet.

  17. What’s interesting to me is that people continually underestimate the Obama campaign’s political smarts and campaign strategy. I know the pervailing meme is the Democrats are heinous at the nitty gritty politics of relection – but that’s Congressional Democrats. If anything the Obama people are FANTASTIC at national campaigns and maybe not so good at DC politics.

    It’s related to the Biden is your drunk uncle meme. — Yes, he’s not the super polished politician we’re used to these days, but the the man wasn’t in the Senate for about 25 years because he was a complete idiot.

  18. I doubt anyone would adopt a strategy that counts on having control of more than one variable in the chaos of a national political race. It seems far more likely that the President’s team decided to play defense and guard their lead, allowing Romney to score by aggressively going after the center in a way he hasn’t before.

    Plus, more people show up to vote for or against the Presidential candidates, so encouraging your supporters and discouraging your opponents helps downticket races more than shifting money or advertising.

    Sounds like a good element of a political thriller, though. I think the way we absorb political news makes us want to fit a narrative to something that in reality is closer to a series of random events.

  19. I think it is more likely that one of the Forsaken used compulsion on Obama to force him to blow the debate. They want Romney to win the election because he is secretly a dark friend.

    I think its more likely that technology will stop working on election day and unicorns will pop into existence at all polling places.

    I think its more likely that when Obama is out of office he will get a new body and get sent off to fight aliens.

    Your post was really creative. I would prefer that the rest of the debates be done as Epic Rap Battles. They would be far more entertaining.

  20. Seems a bit complicated for politicians. Whatever the stripe, most politicians like their strategies short, direct and vicious. Too complicated and you let too many variables in. I think Obama genuinely got caught on the hop, he came across (to me) as the person who has had to go over the same damn point a dozen times for a particularly slow student, only he forgot that while some Republicans have been told all that a dozen times, a lot of fresh viewers hadn’t. So he came across as grumpy.

    We’ve seen it here loads, when a n00b comes in with their “killer argument” against John’s points, and he mallets them for bringing up the flaw ridden piece of discredited carp that has been refuted a thousand times, and the n00b gets upset at being dismissed so easily. Only this time the n00b was half the US electorate who hadn’t realised their cherished beliefs were something that had been subject of discrediting ages ago, and Obama hadn’t realised that being testy over it on (inter)national television was different from smacking down that posturing in private meetings. In essence, Romney played Obama well by using the under-educated prejudices of the electorate as a weapon to provoke that testy reaction.

  21. Possible but not probable. More likely is that Obama fell into the same trap every incumbent President from and including Ronald Reagan did. That trap is, being President and having your ass kissed ten times a day before lunch gets you out of the habit of debating.

    This may cause the Mallet to get warmed up, but I think to a certain extent Romney laid the trap. He’s been running as a fire-eating conservative, and he waited until the first debate to make his big swing to the center.

  22. Once upon a time, my old chess team coach said “The easy way to win is to trick your opponent into thinking he’s playing checkers with you.” You do that by pawn exchanges and occasional material sacrifices. You have to think ahead, but not too far ahead – you may not have the piece you need once you’ve set them up the bomb.
    After 1st debate, I was thinking that the move was “The best thing he could come up with was Big Bird. A distraction from the real business at hand of moving the country forward. He refuses to offer details of how he’ll try to fix the country. No details and lots of distractions. Here are the facts, here are the details, here’s how we’ll win… and why YOU should wake the f* up [and yes, I think Obama dropping the f-bomb would be utterly appropriate to the absurdity at hand] and ignore the distractions.”
    Given the Big Bird commercial, I’m thinking they might be going with the less eloquent rope-a-dope described here. And that makes me sad.
    Or we could all be overthinking it. Maybe Obama is worn out. Maybe he’s tired of having to play whack-a-mole with the stupidity.
    Maybe it’s just a setup for Clinton-Obama 2016.

  23. Interesting theory but I agree with many of the previous posters that it would be too risky and that there’s too much of a chance for things to go wrong. I remember a saying something to the effect that “24 hours is forever in politics”.

  24. 1) Why aren’t you a highly paid political consultant?

    2) This would be a great strategy, as post election it would then free up the Congress and Senate (assuming majorities are elected) and give Obama four years to play his way, instead of trying to come to consensus.

  25. I think you are spot on. At least as far as Obama underplaying his hand in the first debate. He now has Romney on the record etch-a-sketching his way to the center. The question in my mind is can the Obama camp count on the electorate being able to recognize the flip-flopping of Romney’s positions for the cynical ploy that it is. Romney is counting on the public having a short memory or at least excusing his hard right stances as a necessary evil for winning the Republican primaries. I think we saw Obama’s strategy for dealing with this last night when we saw Biden look into the camera and asked the viewers “who are you going to believe,” “who are you going to trust”? Now they need to hit Romney hard in ads and the next debate over his ever changing positions and reinforce the impression that he will say anything to get elected.

  26. My reaction to the first debate was similar to Steve Halter’s: there is now an awful lot of video of Romney saying things that he may regret.

    For myself, I think the strategic scenario is plausible, but that following it is ill-advised. No, that’s the wrong term – repellent is the word I am looking for: this has a high yuck factor for the level of manipulativeness, and if the truth of this strategy were revealed at some later date then there would be a bad public reaction.

    But I actually think this is something which the Obama strategic team could come up with and might follow. I think accusations of incompetence against the Dem party leadership often hit the mark, but the Obama team are much more tightly focussed.

  27. This possibility seems likely to appeal to the Obama supporters, as it plays to their idea of him as an incredibly strong campaigner, and also explains his relatively poor showing (especially in comparison to his prior debates). While I don’t think it is impossible, it does seem to risk a lot. If Obama comes out much better in the next debate, it will fit your hypothesis, but of course even if this idea isn’t correct, he’s likely to try and do much better. Thus, a better showing by Obama in the next debate can’t be used as a support for your scenario.

  28. Related to this theory is another one I’ve heard floating around, though I don’t know how credible it is. If I remember correctly, it was repeated on the Bill Press show this morning on the radio by a caller. Anyway…!

    1) If Obama had been more forceful and passionate during the initial debate, the “angry black man” meme would have immediately popped up, feeding into the racism that seems to fuel the most rabid of the far-right base. (Note that I’m not saying Republicans in general are racist, please.) So he pretty much has to stay calm and professorial, which frankly comes off as boring. Especially against a fired up opponent who is lying his butt off.

    2) Enter Joe Biden. He can be passionate and angry and use every synonym for ‘liar liar pants on fire’ in the thesaurus and get away with it, cause it’s /Joe/. Everyone knows Joe! This is just what Joe does and he’s really freakin’ good at it.

    3) In the next Presidential debate, Obama can now safely take a middle ground between being angry at all the lies and positions of his opponent, and calm rational discussion… and by contrast he will still seem tame.

    I call this the ‘SNL Theory’ – since I imagine most of us have seen the SNL parody of Obama’s ‘inner voice’ raging, while he’s all calm and Presidential. (I laughed so hard I had tears when I saw that skit, btw).

    Personally, I’m not sure I buy either theory in its entirety. My guess is that Obama was actually taken off guard by Romney’s sudden shift into a more centrist viewpoint during the debates (when his stump speeches and other statements have veered into far-rightistan), and his lies. And he quite probably had a lot of stuff going on that day – like the Syria and Turkey conflict. It’s not an excuse for his crappy debate performance, but there it is. So now they have to come up with a strategy to bring the poll numbers back up. Send Joe in with a strategy to get the Democratic base riled up, and make sure Obama doesn’t screw the pooch again in the rest of the debates. And from what I can tell, VP Biden most definitely shored up the base; most of us were heartened by his willingness to rhetorically pummel Ryan. And could care less if people on the right thought he was rude; we consider rude better then letting Ryan get away with lies.

  29. I think this is unlikely for two reasons:

    1, Very tangible downside for Obama (risking the presidency) in return for a somewhat nebulous upside (keeping the big money in the presidential race). Seems like a risky move for an *ahem* pretty conservative guy,

    2, Money or no money, the first presidential debate energized the Republican base and made them feel like their horse has a chance. Kaine, Warren, Tester, Baldwin & co. need to win enthusiasm and turnout more than they need to avoid the scourge of unlimited PAC money calling them ‘merica-hatin’ socialists.

  30. I would love to believe it – if only because Romney’s move to the center after being so right-wing (so far) during the campaign gave the Democratic party so much rope to hang Romney with.

    It really is nearly impossible to know Romney’s stance on issues since it seems to change depending on the audience.

  31. Interesting, and I hope it works, but it would seem like quite the gamble. No arguing here that Obama is one smart guy, but this would be a very intricate plan that would require all the pieces to fall into place, no exceptions. I do see the plausibility behind this, however, as house Republicans haven’t been the most eager to help the President pass legislation this would seem like a wise move to get the country back on track. However, with so much money being donated in this election I can only wonder if this even needs to be a strategy by Obama. With anywhere between $100-200 million being donated each month, it would seem like there would be more than enough cash to be passed around and then some. But then again, I was never good with money.

  32. I believe the long coattails of an 8+ point lead in the Presidential race would benefit Democratic congressional prospects far more than some money shifting buckets for Republican candidates.

    I think Obama had a very bad day, which has done wonders in encouraging Republicans and discouraging Democrats. It might have a significant, but unprovable impact downticket, even if Obama wins.

  33. It’s an interesting idea. That said, my first reaction on seeing Obama’s face (specifically the crazy bags under his eyes) at the beginning of the debate was “holy crap he hasn’t gotten any sleep!” This was after he was all made up for the debate, so I can only imagine how he looked before the makeup. Therefore, I’ve been mostly inclined to think Obama was doing something else super-important in the few days beforehand, and he was putting his (significant) intellectual strength towards being solid and consistent.

    This all said, I’m not of the opinion that Romney is smart, and the Obama camp was definitely talking about how Obama wasn’t worried and was not practicing for the debate… deliberately giving Romney a bit of overconfidence now is not beyond reason.

  34. An interesting strategy. It comes with one major risk – a science fiction author figures it out and posts it on his widely read blog and clues the Republicans on to the wily Democrats.

  35. Inconceivable!

    And I’m going to keep using that word, even if it somehow does not mean what I think it means.

  36. Plausible? Perhaps – it’s certainly one of the more interesting explanations for President Obama’s relatively poor showing against expectations.

    Likely? As others have pointed out, it would be a quite risky strategy from a historically risk-aware president (unless his campaign has additional information that went into the decision-making process).

    It might not have been quite as orchestrated as that. Obama might have decided that, once Romney started backtracking / lying / tracking quickly to the center, he should just give him as much rope as necessary which would explain his passivity (and, to a certain extent, Romney’s relative aggression).

    The opinion that I came away with from the first debate was that Obama seemed to take longer than usualy to gather his thoughts and make his points and that Romney was relentlessly on message (it was just a different message than the one he had been telling prior to the debate).

  37. Possible, but not really very likely. The commentators on the baseball playoffs were discussing a similar theory about hitters — that they foul off pitches they could hit, to wait for a pitch they could hit better. The consensus is that hardly anyone is confident enough of their hitting to actually do that.

    I think politicians are even less confident than baseball players. I think Obama was just taken off guard by Romney’s abrupt change of direction.

  38. The biggest problem with this approach is the down ticket portion. In all models, the Republicans have been expected to hold the house, where there is no filibuster for the minority to stop legislation and the budget originates there. If Obama makes the play you suggest, and ends up losing the presidency by not coming back in the subsequent debates, Romney, Ryan and the House can spend two years trying to force through a variation of the Ryan budget, then paint every Democrat who doesn’t go along with it as obstructionist and hit them hard in the 2014 midterm, where Republicans tend to do better. That gives a Romney presidency two years of minimal opposition and possibly two years of no opposition. This with Cancer survivor Ruth Bader Ginsburg not getting any younger. I agree Obama’s willing to take bigger risks than Romney would, but this has way to big a downside.

  39. What I think is this: the Obama campaign sat down three weeks ago and said, “We need to do these seven things, and need Obama’s focus on them.” One of them was prepare for the debate. So while they’re doing triage, they decide that the downside to losing the debate isn’t too bad, so that thing goes down the list.

    They didn’t plan to lose the debate, but they did plan for if they lost the debate.

    It’s just what you do when there’s not enough time to do everything. I’m sure their priorities are different now.

  40. And this, folks, is why the man is a NYT Bestselling Author. That’s almost pure evil.

    I personally like the simpler theory that Obama was ready for Reactionary Mitt and was dumbfounded when Moderate Mitt went off script. Whether you’re a fan of the President or not, I think that by this point most honest people admit that he’s not the best improviser. That is not the same thing as saying he’s stupid and/or incompetent, and it explains what happened quite neatly.

  41. I have to apply Occam’s Razor here: the simplest explanation is that Obama was taken by surprise and didn’t do very well in the debate. Any explanation that posits him deliberately throwing the debate for whatever reason is a complex as–as explanations for why the sun goes around the earth rather than vice versa. I just don’t see it as likely.

  42. Best explanation I’ve heard yet. It’s not even really particularly conspiratorial, it’s just brilliant sport/business tactics. Give the GOP just enough rope to hang themselves, which they certainly seem to do with alarming regularity. Plus you have the extra added bonus of so much infighting and factions and splinters within the GOP (moderate, quasi-moderate, the Tea folks, the extremists, and that lovely bunch that still believe Obama is an “Arab communist” (?!)). All things considered, the Democrats are mostly a unified front.

    I also really don’t have much of a dog in this fight. You continue to see that both parties are, for the most part, on the same page, at least in identifying similar problems. Their solutions differ wildly but it’s through the usual vetting process (congress, the high courts, etc.) that we somehow keep on steering this ship called America to a satisfactory reality.

    And I don’t care what side of the aisle your allegiances rest, this election season, like all others, is remarkably fascinating, just simply for the consistently evolving science of human nature!

  43. Possibly, but I don’t think so. I think that the plan going in was to get Romney to make as many usable statements on the record as possible — witness the rapid release of ads using debate footage. Maybe even to get him to lose his temper. But I think that Obama and team were surprised by the rapid-fire Mitt.

    Additionally, I believe that Obama was tired and distracted. He saw the debate as a waste of his time, which was a mistake. His staff failed by not focusing him on it. He failed by not rising to the occasion.

    The business about getting the money back into the Romney campaign and away from the down-ballot elections is making lemonade. The renewal of the “horse race” is unexpected gravy — IMHO, the one thing the Obama campaign had to really fear is that people who voted for him in ’08 would think it was a done deal and not come out next month. One of the things that the Obama organization is really good at is taking the situation they find on the ground, and making the best of it.

  44. No fucking way. It’s just another silly “Obama’s playing eleventy-dimensional chess” theory.

    For whatever reasons, Obama simply did poorly in the debate, which allowed Etch-A-Sketch to look good as he lied his ass off and pretended to be a moderate. In politics, that counts as a win.

  45. If Obama wins, this will become the official version and someone will make a movie about it. Get cracking on that script, Scalzi!

  46. Interesting hypothesis. I don’t play politics closely enough to know whether it’s plausible. Some people give Obama a lot of credit as a long planner, and this would be an example of it (if true). Plus, I’m not even a USAmerican, so I look from the outside.

    For reasons that Fletch, Nathaniel, and Sean Hazlett have pointed out, I find the strategy dubious, rather like looking at a constellation of stars and claiming to see a picture.

    I am more inclined to this:

    First, the president, whether he’s a Goofus or a Gallant, is *busy*. He just doesn’t have the time his opponent does to study up and make claims. He might make time to study, but I don’t think it’s as much as the opponent has. So Obama simply didn’t have as much time to prepare as Romney did. (Yes, they both had the same number of days, but running the country is important, whether your name is Bush or Obama.)

    Second, Obama has historically been the polite, quiet centrist guy who doesn’t take advantage of his opponents’ flubs early on, preferring to deal with the facts as he sees them. This has caused him problems before (and makes him look very smart if he manages to pull his fat from the fire). When he takes advantage of his opponents’ flaws, it’s generally late in the game (arguably this is late enough in the game for that to happen, but I suspect it will come true in the next week).

    Do political strategists think this way? I’m not sure: they’re frequently more devious than I imagine, but they usually rely on human cupidity.

  47. Considering how much Obama left unsaid and unrebutted during the first debate, I have to agree–at least as far as him “looking presidential” while his proxies get their hands dirty and their voices hoarse. But he should be very careful about this strategy. Dukakis’ lack of passion in discussing the “your wife has been raped” scenario torpedoed him right out of the water. But talk about flipflops! Is the “you’re screwed” Social Security age “60 and younger” (Romney two weeks ago) or “54 and younger” (Ryan last night) or “56 and younger” (the line before the debate). Whatever the strategy, Romney/Ryan sure left a lot of fat slow ones hanging over the plate. Let’s see if the POTUS team can knock them out of the park

  48. I’d like to believe the DNC was this clever, except they’ve spent the last 20 years demonstrating that they’re politically inept morons. This just sounds like wishful thinking (and I really wish it were true).

    But playing along with the wishful thinking, I think the commenters arguing that a big lead for Obama would be more helpful are missing the point. First, they’re underestimating the impact of advertising money in those congressional races. And second, they’re giving too much credit to the memory of the electorate. If Obama crushes the next two debates, or even just the last one, nobody will remember the first one.

  49. One possible piece of supporting evidence for your thesis: National Journal discusses the Obama spending strategy in North Carolina. While Romney is favored to win NC, and Obama doesn’t especially need the electoral votes, they’re contesting the state aggressively enough that Romney has to keep advertising there with money he’d rather spend in Florida.

    That said, I’m involved in politics at the local/state level, and it’s hard for me to envision a sane campaign staff coming up with this idea, or a candidate being willing to accept that kind of a gamble. The down-ballot contests are looking pretty favorable for the Dems right now anyway, and I don’t see it being worth the prospect of a presidential loss . Obama wasn’t secure enough for that strategy to make sense.

    More importantly, Senate control isn’t exclusively about money. In the season of Todd Akin, it’s actually rather the opposite — we’re seeing the fundamental issues assert themselves. An enthusiastic Democratic base, and a dispirited Republican base, is far more important than the cash transfer that might have happened in the event of a Romney loss.

    My political instincts are that this is an example of finding the silver lining, rather than a deliberate strategy on the part of the Obama campaign.

  50. Humorous, but implausible. (The better explanation for Obama’s performance is that a) he has this day job thing going on and b) Obama is not a big fan of debates.

    Of course, if Obama *had* been more aggressive we’d see the same “waaah mean and rude” whining from his opponents that we get every time a Democratic official does something other than curl up and beg not to be hit in the face again.

  51. Do I think Obama is engaging in his best strategy of ‘rope-a-dope’? YES.
    Do I think Obama is actively playing a strategy to benefit the entire DNC? NO.

    I think what happened was this: Obama had some days prior to the debate where he was busy being president. He and his team made the conscious decision to give Romney some rope to hang himself with, but probably wasn’t planning on giving him quite so much. His intention is probably to compete on the next one and go full-court press on the final and arguably most important debate.

    What I find most amusing is how, after every debate, a “winner” has to be declared…and how often the various judges at different venues all disagree on who that was or to what degree. I have only seen a few debates where one arguer so dominated that most everyone agreed that there was a clear victory….and even in those cases there wasn’t total consensus.

    You know how you decide who won the debate? YOU SEE HOW GETS ELECTED PRESIDENT.

  52. Hello John,

    I will state my thoughts on the first debate as politely as I can and having been at work last night did not see the vice presidential debate I can not comment as of yet.

    As a life long tabletop gamer I have a healthy respect for rules and as the victim of almost a decade of bullying I have very personal reactions to it. In his treatment if Jim Lehrer Mitt Romney showed the quality or lack of same if his character. Ignoring agreed upon rules and disregarding the authority of the moderator shows us how he will act in any situation. I could go into the many reasons he is not a fit man for the office or the lack of logic or consistency to the things he says but his lack of respect for agreed rules is telling.

    Mitt Romney may well be a good father, a good husband and such but he activated my bully radar. He is not assertive he is aggressive and nit someone who should have any more power in this world then that he already had via his position and his vast sheltering hidden wealth.

  53. I think this is plausible. I also think that Obama getting caught out (a bit) by Moderate Mitt is also plausible. So to make up my mind, I look at betting sites (on the grounds that people tell the truth with money in a way that they don’t to pollsters). Obama seems to be in the lead…

  54. I’d say it is more probable that the Obama campaign went into the first debate looking to not lose, rather than looking to win. Not so much rope-a-dope as they were hoping for a safe performance combined with Romney hopefully giving them some gaffes that they could target. The Big Bird thing for instance, which was a completely unforced error that will probably stick with people longer than the listless Obama performance. I don’t think the donor thing carries any weight.

    That, and I wonder if they’re planning on using Romney’s statements in the first debate to trap him if he contradicts those statements between now and the election. In that case, letting Romney go unchallenged in the debate preserves Obama’s likability while still giving his campaign plenty of ammo.

  55. dude, you are evil.


    It’s an interesting narrative to lay on top of what we’ve seen lately, but I’m not entirely convinced. The biggest issue I see is that this narrative has the Obama team assuming that undecided voters will remain undecided and watch the later debate.

    I think that for a lot of people, all it takes is one sound bite or one flub, and they’ve made up their mind not to vote for that person. Howard Dean screeching “rowr” at a rally. Dukakis wearing a tanker helmet that made him look absurd.

    For the Obama team to assume undecided voters would remain undecided after the first debate, for them to assume that they could skate the hairy edge between “meh” and “no thanks”, is pretty ballsy and pretty risky.

  56. Plausible? Yes. This is just the sort of thing someone like Rove or Carville might contrive.
    Likely? I don’t know, but I am dubious. There may be some sort of political game involving the first debate, but I’m not sure it is this exact scenario, as that seems quite risky. However, as I am not an expert at political backroom machinations, I have no idea of what the strategy really was/is.

  57. That is some Realpolitik there. And being from Las Vegas, some serious poker. Do I think that’s the case? Jury’s out on that with me. I have some real bad feelings if it is so (on both conservative and liberal sides).
    This isn’t the Game of Thrones even if either side thinks it is. It’s about real people and real issues.

  58. “He either fears his fate too much,
    Or his desserts are small,
    Who dares not put it to the touch,
    To win or lose it all.”
    — James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose, 1612-1650

    (Common Paraphase: “Who Dares Wins”)

    Is the above quote what the Democrats are thinking? Are they being daring? or stupid?

    It could very easily be – the above quote is a favorite of Military officers and poker players. Obama, from all accounts, is a man that NO ONE wants to play poker with since he consistently wins walking away.

    I recall reading somewhere that in Chicago politics Obama was quite often called Machiavellian for his seemingly inexhaustible ability to get things done when all those around him were frozen in partisan politics.

    So I think all go with Obama & the democrats being daring & not stupid. This Machiavellian scheme would be their best hope of freeing up the House & Senate to allow the democrats to push on their entire platform.

    If this supposition of Scalzi’s turns out to be true I think it should be the other way around – Machiavelli was Obamian.

  59. I think it unlikely that ANY politician is playing N-dimensional chess at this point. The risk of it going pear-shaped is far too great, especially in a race as close as this.

  60. Honestly? Naaah. I shall also apply Occam’s Razor here and take the simplest explanation that the Obama team were not prepared for Mirror Universe Romney to put in an appearance.
    2 thoughts here: 1. We need to get Romney a fake goatee so we can tell which version of Romney is currently on display; and, 2. which version of Romney is actually the Mirror Universe Romney?

  61. Probability – I think the scenario unlikely. It is far too risky, and “likely to win re-election” is not the same as being so far ahead as to be a foregone conclusion.

    Wisdom – Politics is an ugly game, and one where many people’s choices and decisions are based on the most superficial of reasoning. I think you play every point to win, every game like the Super Bowl. You don’t throw a game, ever. You might have a bad night, but you don’t do it on purpose.

    Implications of this being an actual strategy – I don’t believe it is, but if it or something like it were a strategy, I’d have to think that they were nuts. The risk / reward just doesn’t make sense. They’d be hoping to “relieve pressure on the down-ticket races” — that’s not exactly a guarantee that they’d win those races, and the risk is making the opponent look like an alternative and losing the presidency. I don’t think you gamble that away.

    Additionally, I think most presidential candidates are happy to win with the largest majority they can to claim a mandate for their agenda. Risking that to maybe sort of help some down-ticket races that might be in contention would be folly. The best way to help the down ticket races is to win, and win big.

  62. I think alkali19 nailed it. The risk is way too high and Obama wants a huge margin of victory to carry downticket Dems forward. If the strategy was to work, the risk that the reverse might happen must also be true. i.e. if Obama tanks during the first debate and his victory looks uncertain, then big Dem donors would hold back their cash for another day. YMMV.

    p.s. My candidate is superior to your candidate.

  63. I honestly don’t think they’re either…

    1. Bright enough to think of this.
    2. Ballsy enough to do it if they did.

    But nice theory.

  64. I was thinking the same thing last week. I would add a point 6

    If the republicans get a super majority in the House and take the Senate then Obama would not want to be reelected.

  65. Obama should know by not in politics not to take the proverbial foot off the throat until the end credits are rolling. Seems he forgot that.

    Or, he just didn’t want to seem “mean” during the debates. Either option is depressing.

  66. All the reasons I have for why this isn’t plausible have been covered by other posts (high risk/marginal potential gain, losing the polling lead, discouraging his base/encouring opposition base, Occam’s Razor, etc).

    That said, if any campaign was ever bone-headed enough to try a stunt like that and it became common knowledge then it would destroy their standing with Independant voters. Non-partisans generally have little tolerance for shady political shenanigans.

    My personal opinion is that this particular rope-a-dope theory is just an attempt by some very disappointed Obama supporters to make themselves feel better. “It wasn’t an abysmal performance and a massive defeat, the President was setting the Republicans up in long game of congressional hyper-chess. Yeah, that’s it!”.

  67. I don’t buy it. Politicians are well aware that the public is fickle, events are unpredictable, and elections ain’t over until the votes are counted (and maybe not even then). Accordingly they want to grab and maintain as big a lead as possible.

    The Democrats, in particular, are haunted by the memory of 2000 and 2004, two very winnable elections which they managed to lose.

    A UK example: Tony Blair, shortly before his landslide election victory in 1997, was famously described as being like a man carrying a priceless Ming vase across a highly polished floor, terrified that he could drop it at any moment. (And unlike Obama, Blair had a crushing 20 point lead in the opinion polls.)

  68. I will paraphrase something I heard once: “The best part of any conspiracy is the idea that someone out there actually has a plan.”

  69. While I wouldn’t put that plan past certain Machiavellian political operatives, (Karl Rove, possibly James Carville) I don’t think Obama is arrogant enough to assume his victory in the upcoming election is that secure.

  70. I think this is a plausible theory, though it would a pretty bold strategy to just burn one debate that way. My take on Obama’s lackluster performance was based on something that Mark Shields said: “Mitt Romney is the first presidential candidate in — certainly in the last 35 years who wherever he campaigns does worse [in the polls]. And I think that’s his real problem.” I just assumed that Obama was giving Romney enough rope to hang himself, but then Romney stepped up and managed to muster some consistency, at least within the context of the debate.

  71. I think the Dems (and Rubs for that matter) have strategists who are entirely Machiavellian enough to think of this…as a contingency plan for an underperforming first round. But I don’t believe the DNC or Obama would play that fast and loose. Too many variables that could blow up in their face, and too good a chance of being a disappointment even if it didn’t bite them in the ass. Political strategists (like all competent real-world strategists) don’t try to build campaigns Rube Goldberg style, but they keep their options open, and the good one’s work out plan B’s and C’s and D’s. But you already know all this, John, so why ask us? Are you trying to gauge how much voters’ preconceptions about candidates lead them to ignore that campaigns are multimillion dollar enterprises backed up by the best political machines that money can buy?

  72. …On the one hand, it’s an absolutely brilliant and fascinating strategy.

    On the other hand it scares the crap out of me to think they’d actually think of it and do it. I mean, that’s like… stone cold manipulation and political wizardry at a crazy high level.

  73. My theory is that Obama just loves being in Ohio and by allowing the race to become tighter he gets to spend more time in Ohio.

    Given the amount of crazy, stupid money being funneled in to every close congressional race in the country, I get the feeling no one is having to make the tough decision between whether to fund the presidential campaign or whether to fund a handful of House and Senate campaigns.

  74. If indeed that was their plan, they failed to take into consideration how badly their guy “tanking it” would help the Republican campaign. Now they’re in a hole they may not be able to crawl out of.


  75. To be honest, it reads like the political equivalent of the two-point conversion in (American) football: when it works it can win the game, but the likelihood of pulling it off is slim.

    This isn’t saying anything about plausibility, just the wisdom of the strategy.

  76. I see the strategy as analogous to a sports team purposely playing a vanilla game in a meaningless regular season finale knowing they are going to meet the same team the next week in the playoffs. That is, save the best stuff for when it counts the most. I believe Obama is audacious and shrewd enough to attempt such a ploy. We will never know whether that is actually what happened.

    BTW, here is an interview transcript of a chat between the Grantland Sports Guy and Barack Obama from a few months ago. Barack is one cocky guy and I think it is reflected in the interview:

  77. Personally I think that Obama had started to believe that his caricature of Romney was real. He was surprised when the actual man showed up. It goes along with Obama playing tourist at Hoover Dam instead of doing his home work. He was too arrogant to put in the work. Also, some smart, deep, thinkers are not good at quick repartee. Let’s see who shows up to the next debate.

  78. “Rope-a-dope” was my first and lasting impression of what I read of the first debate. Didn’t really think much of it beyond that to get to the strategy bit, but that’s a very interesting scenario. My state always goes democratic so heavily that following the presidential race is mostly pointless and entirely annoying. Seems to have worked up to this point. Question is whether the lead truly is insurmountable.

  79. I don’t doubt that there may be some strategists in the Obama camp who are sophisticated enough to conceive of such a stratagy. Implementation is another matter. On the one hand, I doubt that Obama’s ego would let him (especially as the incumbent president) take a dive in the first debate. Secondly, IMHO, Obama is not that good a debater. He is best as an orator, delivering a prepared speech. Accordingly, his performance was as expected. The question is, can he do better in the next two debates?

  80. It is ridiculous because Obama wants a blowout. The bigger the blowout, the bigger the coattails, the bigger the mandate, the bigger the sledgehammer Obama gets to swing when trying to push through legislation.

  81. *Highly* improbable, if not outright impossible. Specifically, there is no indication that the major donors to the GOP believe Romney has no chance of winning. They’re much more likely to believe the polls are simply biased, the most common argument I’ve heard is that media polls are routinely oversampling Democrats and undersampling Republicans out of proportion to their respective shares of the electorate. I doubt this is true, but we’ll see come election day.

    There should be a corollary to Heinlein’s Razor about not attributing to deliberate strategy what can be explained by stupidity. Obama went into the first debate thinking that he could walk all over Romney like he did with John McCain in 2008. Romney proved he was made of sterner stuff. My guess is that Obama will not make the same mistake twice, and will attempt a different strategy for the next debate. (And also that Romney knows this, and will plan accordingly. And so on and so forth, turtles all the way down.)

  82. What I want to know is why the Scalz won’t share the brand of Kool-Aid he drinks so that the rest of us can share in the pretty pictures and wild ideas. And Himself such a standup and open guy …..

  83. Your theory is interesting and fun to consider, but I agree with others that it’s too risky. The media wants a close race. Blowouts are boring and run the risk of decreasing ratings. Look at the bias in how Romney’s aggressive performance was viewed favorably while Biden’s aggressive performance was viewed negatively. Look at the CNN polls declaring Ryan the winner while the fine print shows that they oversampled Republicans. Look at the new attention paid to outlying pollsters. It all adds up.

  84. As an Obama supporter, I’d be more upset if I believed he agreed to such a cockamamie take-a-dive-in-the-first-debate strategy than I am with what actually happened: he let a BS artist run over him. And what is it about the American character that attracts us to conspiracy theories like Wimpy to a hamburger?

  85. My reaction, as expressed in the most enlightened, pithy and effective communication strategy of our time: the Fred Gwynne quotation.

    I’m thinking the stakes are too high for that sort of gamesmanship, which could so easily backfire. It’s a huge bet on a single roulette number.

  86. I can see President Obama being very strategic in his decisions, and your idea lends credence to that perception, but I’m torn about whether I accept it or not. Sure, it makes for a great narrative, but as many have pointed out, there’s a huge risk that could cost the Democrats practically everything. I guess I would rather believe that honesty and sheer grit wins the day instead of long-term strategy, but I know I’m being idealistic.

  87. Many years ago, while in college, I read a book by comics legend Stan Lee. It was, IIRC, an espionage potboiler, though I could be wrong about that. It was not, to say the least, memorable. Then my room mate read the book because, hey, it was lying around and he had not yet read it. So, since we always had time to kill at night, one night we started to talk about it.

    I was then, as I am now, a political activist for a living. I was working on some campaign or another, trying to juggle running a campaign with school. And I said to him that the problem with the book was, in a phrase that’s survived long past the memory of the book, “so cynical it’s naive.”

    My problem with the scenario is not that it’s too “sophisticated.” It’s that a campaign is a 24 hour a day grind with no letting up. Everyone who is senior enough in a campaign to think about strategy (as opposed to his or her little area of the campaign, whether that’s knocking on doors, advance work for an appearance, fundraising or media) has the experience of losing a campaign he or she thought already won. We all have pulled upsets that we should not have been able to pull off. That’s how you get to be a senior level campaign staffer, by winning and losing a lot of campaigns, nursing the wounds for a few months, and then going back and doing another won.

    Like the old phrase about this not being my first rodeo, all of us have lived our 8 seconds on the bull and then nursed the injuries, wiser and ready to take on the next bull. And what we all know is that it’s NEVER in the bag. It’s NEVER time to let up. It’s NEVER guaranteed.

    That’s especially true in a presidential election. Especially one with 8% unemployment (OK, 7.8%, but still). Those of us who have done time on campaigns see that number and can’t imagine how Obama can win, not whether he can tease out a bit to avoid spending in other races.

    And, having worked the other side of a huge electoral landslide that we knew was coming (yeah, I’m a liberal and worked for Mondale in ’84), you also know that the size of the win counts when going back up there for a second term. So if Obama’s campaign thought they were ahead, they wanted to make sure he won 300 electoral votes, not 280. That he won 310, not 300. Or 320, not 310. It helps with coat tails. It helps with power vis a vis Capitol Hill. And it helps with setting up the 2014 Congressional elections.

    Sorry, John. There’s a reason you write (award winning) fiction, and I’m a policy wonk. On this one, trust the politico, not the fiction writer.

  88. John, I believe your theory for the same reason I still go to church, I want it to be true. I fully concede I may be wrong.

    I still think that Obama was caught by surprise by Romney’s pivot to the center. In both debates, Romney and Ryan have been trying to get as close to the President’s positions as possible while staying plausibly Republican. (Even though some of Obama’s positions are also plausibly Republican.) The thinking would be that the Republicans are so upset with Obama, and the nomination is already settled, that they will be happy with anything Romney says.

  89. As a political strategy, it would not be the most unlikely thing to work, there have been some hum dingers (that I can’t think of), but as far as it being what they actually tried to set in motion… I doubt it. It wouldn’t surprise me though if I was wrong.

  90. I’m getting the impression a lot of people didn’t read the first post and maybe missed this part:

    but my positing the scenario for the purposes of communal consideration should not imply that I personally necessarily believe that scenario (I have an opinion regarding its plausibility, but I’m holding it back for now)

    It seems like some people think John was stating he thought this, when he specifically hasn’t given an opinion. My guess is that he doesn’t believe the ‘helping the party/drain the funds’ part, but he does believe in the ‘rope-a-dope’ part. But I’m sure he’ll tell us before long his view on the theory.

  91. This sounds exactly like the sort of thing Lincoln would have done. I used to think Obama was capable of these deep, slow tactics, but I’ve lost rather a lot of faith in him in that regard.

    I think it’s entirely feasible. I think it would at least help the down ticket races. I just don’t think the current team are capable of that level of skulduggery.

  92. The only problem with using game theory to analyze this, is that if you get it wrong, you lose the whole shebang. On the other hand, Obama has been leading for a long time and is leading in early voting in some swing states. Just enough time to get the voters all excited again.

    But. What happens if he blows the next two debates?

  93. Chris: Romney and Ryan have been trying to get as close to the President’s positions as possible

    Romney says whatever he thinks the people in front of him want to hear. When he was running for governor of Massachusetts, he said he would support prochoice. Now that a lot of right wingers think abortion should be outlawed even in the case of incest, rape, and the mother’s life is in danger, surprise, Romney’s position changed to draw in the voters. When he’s in front of a bunch of rich, right wing, campaign donors, he professes plutocracy, rich people are inherently better than poor people, etc. In the debate, he found himself in front of America and said what he thought America would want to hear, and he tacked to the center. That just so happens to be where Obama is, slightly right of center.

    Romney has no principles himself. He is simply drawn to power. He thinks he deserves it simply by being rich. And he says whatever he think wil get him into the white house.

  94. Greg, I think you’re de-railing.

    I agree with the others who think this is a little bit too risky to actually do, as attractive as the idea would seem. IMO it’d really rely on a spectacular October surprise to make it worth the risk.

  95. Very interesting scenario… While it doesn’t seem plausible, the ultimate beauty of “rope-a-dope” is precisely in its level of guile: In order to succeed it has to play out almost completely, without looking orchestrated, exactly as one’s opponent expects or anticipates until very near the end. That being said, I think the “any and everything is possible” age in politics is in full bloom.

  96. The strategy may be super-clever but the risks are way too high. “Machiavellian”, maybe, but M. actually advised against that kind of thing – he was for keeping things simple if you can. In addition, he believed that “The best way to remain in power is to govern well”. It reminds me of the overcomplicated type of strategy involving getting three armies to converge on a battle, each in the right place at the right time, that almost all military historians consider an invitation to disaster.

    Going off-topic a bit, I can’t resist this quote from the very shortest chapter in _The Prince_. “Rulers of ecclesiastical states, who hold their office by the will of God, require neither virtue, nor wisdom, nor talent to gain or hold their positions.”

    Meanwhile, Jack Lint may be on to something. What is drawing Obama to Ohio, in addition to its No. 1 battleground state status? Is there something, or _someone_ in the state we haven’t been told about? I think we should be told. How about it, John?

  97. Someone smart enough to come up with this strategy would be smart enough to recognize that they couldn’t manage it closely enough considering all of the variables outside of their control. Someone dumb enough to try it could not have come up with this strategy in the first place.

    Alternative scenario: A complex strategy is developed elsewhere and planted to expose a lightweight who would be expected to try to punch above their weight.

  98. I can see the thinking behind the scenario (sort of), but the gamble is so huge that it could be argued that anyone taking that gamble deserves to suffer for such cliff-hugging recklessness. If Obama could have broken Romney then and there, then he should have finished him off. Dems can move resources as well. (Obama had a chance to watch for a kill shot opportunity and arrived unarmed – probably weakened from being in the cocoon of the presidency.)

    I’m not thinking that having Obama look stupid in the first debate is much of a plan. It was embarrassing. Seriously, that would be a thing to plan?

  99. Possible but unlikely. As someone up thread noted, they struggle to play tiddly-winks. You’re proposing chess — and flawless chess.

  100. Put me in the “Obama expected the Mitt Romney who’d been campaigning for the past 2 years as a ‘strict conservative’ and was surprised by the appearance of ‘Moderate Romney’ instead” camp.

    Add in the fact that intellectuals have a difficult time debating those who employ the Gish Gallop – as Romney did – and you have all of the components for a non-conspiracy explanation.

    The lefties should take heart in the notion that Reality-Based-Thinkers will adapt their strategies to reflect actual events; the righties can be comforted by the knowledge that Romney slung enough unchallenged BS to go up in the polls, and BS is the only renewable resource that they actually embrace.

  101. My husband and I were thinking something along those lines, though not with quite as much detail –it was more of a pool-hustle situation. Make the other player think you’re weak, then when the big money is on the line, show ’em what you can really do.

  102. Should you ever turn your pen to the intrigue genre I suspect you would be insanely successful. I could actually hear the discussion in some smoke filled back room where I like to imagine campaign strategy is still discussed (even though I spent my time in those trenches and never actually encountered such a room, they tended to be filled with lots of empty coffee cups and pizza boxes rather than smoke).

  103. So are you essentially trying to apply ‘Moneyball’ to campaign cash? Interesting idea, but I don’t think that it could work in the current climate. Political opinion is just too fractured, and the split keeps hovering within five points of 50/50 (and has since GWB). While I think that trend will finally shake loose within the next decade (and yeah, that opinion runs against the current), I don’t think now’s the time to that either party plans for their presidential candidate to quit beating the other guy senseless while he’s still lying on the floor. The Democrats certainly remember how Clinton beat a sitting president who’s popularity had been through the roof the previous year, at least partly because Bush’s campaign wonks seemed so complacent. Both the Republicans and Democrats are churning through their younger candidates to find the next ones to really grab the national spotlight, but they’re asking those young guys to hitch their wagons and their rhetoric to the presidential campaign in order to reap support later. The parties want those guys to be mouthpieces, aspects, avatars & etc. of the two presidential candidates, not the other way around. I think the focus has been singular and direct.

  104. In addition to John’s imagined scenario, we have also heard it suggested on this thread that Romney has been cleverly holding back.

    I don’t think either is likely. A top election strategist just might be that Machiavellian if he was really, really sure it would work, but strategies with so many moving parts are seldom a good idea. Also, I think the President would have to insist quite forcefully to get strategists who want to put a presidential win on their resumes to risk the President’s race in hopes of boosting races that they aren’t working on.

    I think it more likely that the President didn’t prioritize the debate high enough. The President has a reputation for dragging a teleprompter to very brief appearances. Extemporaneous speech isn’t exactly his strong point.

    The 538 blog is saying that Romney’s chance of victory almost doubled to about 1 in 3 after the first debate. This morning’s Rasmussen Poll puts the candidates about even in the swing states. So if this is their plan, it appears to be a strategy that risks a great deal.

  105. I’d never heard of the “Gish Gallup” until Romney’s debate strategy needed a description. Interesting. The website I found that explained gish gallup also had a nice table of Romney flip-flops.

    I’ve seen gish gallups before, just never knew the approach had its own name.


  106. If it’s true, it’s because Obama developed and implemented the strategy personally. I do not believe that any of his campaign staff would jeopardize their careers with this kind of Hail Mary play. At this point, they are already thinking about the next election, and how to increase their profiles and charge higher rates. These are professionals, not known for taking risks because of the personal downside.

    Oddly, the scenario becomes more likely if going into the first debate Obama was 8 points behind Romney. Then some sort of crazy but calculated gesture might be suggested because there isn’t as much too lose. In this case, however, even if the strategy works the staff cannot put it on their resumes.

    Agree with all those who think Obama was simply complacent and/or distracted. For a plausible distraction — what if earlier in the day he was told that a dirty bomb had been planted in a major city? Or that Japan and China have each launched gunships? Or Israel is 90 minutes from attacking Iran?

  107. The one thing I’ve been watching for awhile is the Iowa Election Market (, because I tend to think that people are more honest about their predictions when money’s on the line, and I also know how fast everyone in my family hangs up on pollsters of any stripe (suggesting that polls disproportionally select for people who like to bloviate about politics over the phone).

    The thing that’s interesting about the Iowa 2012 Presidential market is that it’s been predicting an Obama win consistently since the summer. Although his droopy debate performance dropped his price, it didn’t make Romney a winner.

    This leads to a couple of problems, personal and political. The personal problem is that this makes me increasingly intolerant of news media blaring poll results, because it sounds to me more like welfare for poll-makers and political reporters, rather than honest data collection. The political problem is that both pollsters and political reporters have a vested interest in getting people to pay for as many polls as possible, so they appear to have a vested interest in making the poll results as contentious as possible. That’s my opinion anyway, and note that it’s non-partisan. All reporters get paid for telling stories, not conveying information. They HAVE to write stories, whether they’re worth telling or not. Obviously, I expect them to ethically want to tell important stories, but when a person’s job is on the line, ethics inevitably get strained.

    Was the president playing rope-a-dope? I doubt it. Personally, I think he’s ill-served by his staff in many ways. While I’m definitely a romantic, were I president, I would demote the scheduler who negotiated to have me debate on my 20th anniversary. The presidency is so stressful on relationships, I simply can’t see how scheduling a debate on such an important day does anything more than add emotional baggage. I still have no clue about why anyone thought that was a good idea.

    That said, I’m not sure whether he was tired because of that, or because (more likely) something else came up, and the debate got priority no. 2 that day. For all we know, he spent the day watching the video feed as SEAL Team 9 resealed Cthulhu’s tomb at R’lyeh, or something equally serious and more probable, such as receiving an unpleasant scouting report from Syria or Iran. The dude does still have to run the country after all.

  108. John, the scenario sounds good. Really good. *Too* good. I’m always suspicious of a theory that feels like it makes *so much sense!!!1!11!* Because, man, whenever you come across a conspiracy theorist, they always exclaim that aliens impregnating sheep in order to steal out Precious Bodily Fluids makes *so much sense!!!1!11!*

    So. Sounds good. Not going to believe it in any way until there’s evidence.

  109. makes me think of the left wingers trying to defend Obama’s “preemptive capitulation” strategy for health care reform and many other issues. Obama starts by cutting the legs out from the democrat’s side, and then stares in bewiderment that the Republicans don’t commit hari kari in response. Rather than simply call a self-defeating strategy what it is, there have been quite a few lefty’s who have argued that it is all part of Obama’s grand but not-yet-revealed plan to somehow turn the world into a progressive paradise.

    Obama isn’t wedded to left wing ideas, so it doesn’t occur as a “sacrifice” to him to let them go. He is in fact quite right wing when it comes to a number of topics, including torture, indefinite detention, eavesdropping on americans without due process, assasination americans without due process, launching wars without congressional approval, predator drone strikes, among others.

    honestly, I don’t know what the right has against Obama other than he’s black. Obama is center-right on the spectrum. But there are all these Democrats out there who keep coming up with various narratives to explain how Obama is secretly a radical leftist like them, and his left-defeating approaches are mere part of a larger radical leftist scheme of his.

    No. Sorry. He’s center-right.

  110. It’s certainly plausible, but if I were playing “President Elect” on my old C-64, I’d back up my save before trying it – and that’s a game, not real life…

    One other argument against it – the original “rope-a-dope” (Ali/Foreman ’74) came about because Ali’s camp thought it gave him a better chance than a stand-up fight. If you start from a losing position, you have a much different tolerance for risk than you do from a clear winning position.

    If anything, I’d cast it as part of a Lois McMaster Bujold “not one path to victory, but all paths” thing. By Obama playing close to the vest, if Romney stays on-message, Romney looks like an attack dog, and Obama comes off very Presidential – the race doesn’t shift either way. If Romney tries to take over the center, Obama comes off second-best on the day, but has ten or twenty more flip-flops on clear, network-quality video to run in battleground states (and Romney doesn’t have corresponding video to play the race card with – as he would if confronted then and there).

    Or at least you can spin it that way – if Obama wins the election, the historical narrative might very well be that there was no way for Romney to have leveraged victory from the debates, regardless of what he might have done.

  111. My theory: Obama’s a smart cookie. I don’t think there wasn’t any reasoning behind his subdued performance. Whether it was to appear calm and let Romney generate his own rope, or whether there was some grander strategy, I don’t know.

    I will say one thing, though: If the media narrative hadn’t changed from “Obama’s got this in the bag” to “it’s a horse race again,” there was a real danger of lower turnout from theoretically Obama-leaning people. Romney’s base is going to turn out in droves, because they hate Obama so much that they’ll be driven to the polls. Liberal-leaning folks outside of those groups who stand to seriously suffer under a Romney presidency, on the other hand, might be inclined to blow off voting if they think it might not matter. That would hurt not only Obama’s chances, but every Democrat and liberal-interest ballot issue down-ticket, too.

    The issue with Republican campaign dollars being spent down-ticket if Romney looked like he’d be DOA is important, but I don’t think that would be the biggest motivation to throw the first debate. I think a combination of letting Romney ramble on to gather all sorts of good material to throw back at him later, plus wanting the base not to get complacent, would be a much bigger deal.

    Theoretically, a strong performance from one’s candidate is supposed to be a rallying thing. Whip up the crowd, get them energized to vote. But with a few weeks still left, whipping them up last week would have only widened the lead, and led to possible enthusiasm burnout by the time Nov. 6 actually rolled around. Remember that Obama’s base tends to be young and urban, with short attention spans. They need a last-minute shove out the door, not a sustained rally.

    Now, whether the campaign really had this stuff in mind? No clue. But I do think that’s how it might well play out in the coming weeks, and I think Biden’s balls-out approach last night was part of a lead-up to something bigger for Obama himself (not to mention, Biden’s a much better attack dog, because he can take the subsequent hits better.)

  112. One other note: There are almost no undecideds left in the POTUS race at this point. Swaying anyone to one side or the other shouldn’t be part of either camp’s strategy. Everything they do from here on out has to be focused on GOTV efforts and helping stuff downticket. A late-game rally, therefore, makes a LOT of sense on Obama’s part.

  113. After seeing Obama look uninterested and skip a lot of really easy shots, your hypothetical was actually my first theory. (Well, actually my first theory was Obama spent the evening thinking “Oh crap! I forgot to get Michelle flowers!!” But this was a close second.)

    I wondered if I was just being too hopeful, however. Maybe the Romney Etch-a-sketch was shaken so hard Obama was thrown for a loop (there’s actually an amusing video out there of General Election Romney debating Primary Romney that is pretty frightening when you think this guy is close to winning the White House and I don’t think anyone can be sure what he really thinks).

    As for Obama being too confident, looking at the ELECTORAL votes rather than national polls, Romney has never been even close. Personally, I’ve found to be a nice tracker of this because he uses all the polls he can get and doesn’t skew, unskew, or otherwise alter numbers. It just relies on gathering up as many polls as possible and letting time resolve any outliers (like I’m hoping the recent Mason Dixon Florida poll is that shows an extreme swing to Romney).

    The most informative is actually a page that shows the same charts for the past several elections. Each time there’s swinging back and forth – especially look at Kerry/Bush in the last couple months before the election where it is totally erratic. That is the sign of a close race. 2012 onthe other hand? Obama has electoral advantage well past 270 almost every day since day 1. Looking at the electoral votes, briefly in June Romney was only behind 20ish electoral votes, otherwise it’s been 100-150 electoral vote leads all along. The graph shows signs of a steady election that was largely decided months ago. I’m not sure there has ever been enough undecideds to really swing things.

    I can see Obama’s team looking at similar electoral vote data and feeling like they could risk a rope-a-dope, especially after things like Citizens United opened up the doors to even more massive spending. Dumping millions into down ticket races could be devastating.

  114. If this was true I’d punch Obama (or David Plouffe) in the nose. It was hard to find the grace to forgive Obama for being tired and unprepared at the first debate, but I managed.

    If I found out on the other hand that his performance was simply part of a cynical and jaded maneuver that willingly risked everything for people who need this guy to come through for them, well, I’d go ballistic.

    Seriously. I might even consider voting for Romney. I get all the DNC and DailyKos emails, and each one of them tries to sell me on the idea that it’s about more than politics for these people.

    Now, obviously I have to take some of that with a grain of salt, but (fault me if you like) I really do at some level believe the narrative that the Dems care about the common people more than the Republicans do. It was this very narrative that Biden successfully drew on last night.

    If I found out that the party’s standard-bearer was in fact that cynical about the election, and the people, and the voters to whom it means so very much, it’d be a f@#$ing deal-breaker. It really would

  115. There are two conflicting memes here:
    A) Obama is playing n-dimensional chess and is willing to lose a few battles to win the war. This seems to be true about half the time.
    B) Never underestimate the ability of the Democratic party to blow a sure thing. This seems to be true about half the time, also (which is a significant improvement from before 2008)

  116. I think there are two lenses for your scenario: is it plausible? Is that likely what happened?

    I certainly think it is plausible, and that often the strategy of political theatre has little to do with what can and will be accomplished once one is in office. In terms of being part of a larger political strategy for which attempting to get their other party to back the wrong candidate and throw advertising dollars at the wrong subjects at the wrong times seems entirely germane and well reasoned to me.

    But I have my doubts that this what likely happened. I was pretty shocked at how poorly Obama had fared in the first debate, it is not something I could have predicted. People have bad days, and that is what I personally think has happened with Obama. I definitely expect a stronger showing from him in the coming debates.

    I don’t feel like Romney won that first debate as much as Obama failed to show up entirely – his mind and interest seemed elsewhere.

    Full disclosure, I am likely to vote for Romney and very unlikely to vote for Obama – but I don’t hold that in stone. Though registered as a republican, I voted third party in my district rather than for George W Bush or John Kerry, in part because while I would never support Kerry, Bush had done plenty to dissuade me from continuing to support him either. I am more strongly in support of Scott Brown for his senate seat as a Massachusetts voter, than I am in just voting the party line and voting Romney as well. Partly, that’s because I have more say in the senatorial race. Thanks to the electoral college, my specific support of Romney or another candidate will be washed out the by majority of Massachusetts voting democrat.

  117. Side note on news media covering politics like a horse race:


    Flip it around. Here’s what it would look like if sports writers covered horse races like political writers cover politics: There’d be a big front-page spread on the winning horse, the rider, the trainer, the tactics, the owner, how many people watched the race, and so on. On page 4, there’d be a small sidebar noting that the winning horse had tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. (The fact that the sidebar even existed would be used later as evidence of how “hard-hitting” the newspaper was.) The financial connection between the makers of the photo-finish camera and the owners of the winning horse would be completely ignored.

    Meanwhile, commentators on the major news channels would discuss whether the unsourced rumors they’d bravely reported on before the race might’ve had anything to do with the results of the race, particularly given the jocky’s suspicious refusal to release their kindergarten report card.

  118. I want this to be true whether it is or not because it shows an intelligence in the Obama campaign that I’d admire.

    Unfortunately, it’s about as plausible as my scenario posted on FB:
    I think ever married man knows why Obama screwed up the debate. It was on his 20th anniversary and his wife was yelling at him for scheduling it (he’s not off the hook just because his staff probably picked it) on that day of all days. She may have been chastising him up to the moment he stepped out on that stage. What he was really doing looking down the whole time was writing a poem “Roses are Red. Violets are Blue. Fighting with Romney is nothing compared to doing it with you. XOXO x 20, Barry”

  119. I knid of feel like, given the level of control and not-quite scripting of the debates, that the first one was allotted to Romney to win, the next will be all Obama, and the third will be split between softballs for both and give them a chance to hang themselves. I don’t know anyone whose position was changed by either debate so far, though truth be told I don’t know anyone whose position on who to vote for (Obama or Not!Obama) has changed in two years. Hell, I’m not sure I believe any actual undecided voters exist, I think they’re mostly just folks not willing to tell a pollster.

  120. I don’t buy it. I don’t think they’re that clever, for one, and for another I don’t think they’re that overconfident. They know there’s a huge negative-ad spend coming from the the Koch brothers and other spawn of Satan superPAC donors.

    I’d like to believe it, because that would make my side smarter than I think it is, but frankly I think they just underestimated the importance of the debate.

  121. One commentary I saw a few days ago considered the record of incumbent presidents in their first debates, starting in 1984 (there having been only one debate in 1980 and an unelected incumbent in 1976). Except for Clinton in 1996, whose opponent Bob Dole had already been semi-abandoned by his party by that point, all the incumbents were perceived to have performed poorly in their first debate: Reagan in 1984, Bush in 1992, Bush Jr. in 2004. Part of this may be related to each of these events being the first time the challenger was on stage with the incumbent.

    In any case, perhaps Obama and his team realized that any attempt to “win” the first debate as the incumbent would be a wasted effort, and that there was no point in being aggressive; it would seem unpresidential. (As noted above by marismae, Biden has now prepared the ground so that Obama “can now safely take a middle ground between being angry at all the lies and positions of his opponent, and calm rational discussion… and by contrast he will still seem tame.”)

  122. I do not believe this theory. The best way to “win” congress would be an Obama landslide victory mandate. Unless Obama figures he can draw 5-6 points in the next two debates the Scalzi theory is bunk.

  123. Certainly it is possible that Obama’s camp might have made such a plan but plausible – No. It would be a major risk because it threatens his own money supply, hurts downticket for straight party voters (a lot of people show up to vote for the president and vote for his party or whoever they remember seeing better ads from), and brings the presidency back into contention. Before the debate Obama had 270 electoral college votes predicted, now he has dropped to 254 – that means he actually has to win the real tossup states rather than holding his lead. Mostly I think Obama’s performance was lackluster because he was trying to avoid the ‘angry black man’ stories the next day and because he was genuinely caught off guard by Romney attacking him from the left. He was prepared to fight Romney on the lies he has been telling on the campaign but Romney came to the debate with an entirely new set of lies.

  124. One of the things that always threw me about serial killers on TV and in movies is that I don’t believe most people are smart enough to see 10 steps ahead when dealing with really big things. Makes sense in chess, because there are a limited number of players, pieces, and acceptable moves. But life and politics are bigger than that and have way too many variables. I can’t imagine a real life Hari Seldon. Just don’t see it.

    I tend to look at it like this: You have two sets of monkeys in a cage trying to get the attention of the folks with the food. Yelling, throwing feces, and holding up shiny objects. If flinging poo got you fed yesterday, you fling that poo with all you’ve got until you see another monkey get fed for yelling like a maniac. Then comes your yelling.

    So, today on the news everyone is talking about who yelled the loudest. Tomorrow they will be comparing shiny objects. I am almost at a point of writing in Robert Heinlein. I read Stranger in a Strange Land and that guy knows how to throw a party.

  125. Why does it have to be one or the other? My hunch is that Mr. Obama allowed Mitt Romney to win the first debate, just as you suggested. however he “misunderestimated” just how affable Mr. Romney could be, when he turns on the charm, and he gave up more ground than he intended. Mr. Obama is not the kind of politician who switches strategy in the middle of the debate, so he has to play it out. But from here on out his focus will be on winning.

  126. I think the reasoning in the scenario John posited makes a big assumption: The total amount of $$$ raised for GOP this election cycle will be nearly constant. Only then does employing an unexpected strategy to shift it strategically make a bit of sense. The other more likely scenario is whoever wins a debate gets a fundraising bump that the winner’s side can spend it to shore up tight races. I think this applies to both the party of Pepsi and the party of Coke.

  127. No, I don’t want comfort that there is some sort of grand secret plan. Sounds more like excuse-making. Elections are unpredictable, and the best way to win seats in Congress is with momentum and coattails.

    Democrats are letting Republicans get away with the meme that history started in 2009, that the economic downturn had no antecedent, and that the recession started in 2009, not 2007 (or continued from 2001 with a very short and small uptick 2003-2005). If Obama lets that go unchallenged, he deserves to lose.

  128. I think it’s implausible, mainly because the one thing every political advisor knows for sure is that their jobs are as much art as science, and there’s just no way to be sure which events (positive or negative) will take hold and which ones will barely have an impact. I can’t see them taking this chance.

  129. I emailed this to Ezra Klein of the Washington Post, who was nice enough to give me a quick response:

    “In general, I always advise people to go with the simplest explanation for when a candidate or a campaign fucks up: They just fucked up. The Obama campaign really wanted to win that debate. They really don’t like this being a race again. They never would have intentionally thrown the first debate. They’re not nearly as confident in a win as this suggests.

    The truth is that most people aren’t very good at even playing chess, much less at playing 12-dimensional chess.”

  130. This scenario could be very plausible if the presidents campaign had a bombshell to drop on Romney timed to go off about two weeks before the election. Something about Bain outsourcing jobs abroad or more likely a document revealing Romney’s off shore tax havens and hidden assets from the I.R.S.

  131. To follow such a plan would be profound incompetence, because it would require certainty about the strength of the president’s polling lead. You have to respect what you don’t know and can’t predict. You don’t do something that can put you in serious danger of losing as some kind of triple-bank-shot strategy.

    Everything I’ve heard suggests that Obama made a personal tactical miscalculation about what argumentative style would prevail in the debate, not a strategic miscalculation like that.

  132. A bit more complex then it needs to be. While this seems possible, I’m going for simple: Obama is just not that good without a prepared speech and a teleprompter in front of a sympathetic audience. It probably didn’t help that Obama (by some accounts) has personal disdain for Romney and having to cover for that was harder than he thought.

    I would be curious to know how he does in all the small fundraiser groups he has been to over the last year or two. Does he have a Q+A session? Is it all softballs or any hard questions? Alas, these are without press coverage so it’s hard to get a consistent read on what happened.

  133. I think the stated scenario is too unlikely and too risky to be considered as a serious strategy. Kind of like giving up a first down in a close football game so that you can throw the ball for a big touchdown; too many things are out of your control or could go wrong, especially this close to the end and we are talking about mass communication, perception, and campaign messaging. You might not be able to get off the ropes.

  134. I am just glad someone is thinking seriously about these debates. Way better than the sloppy post debates – earnest but useless – TV coverage.

  135. Seems like an unlikely and too complicated strategy from folks who really haven’t, historically, been good at the details. I suspect the President just had an off day, and wasn’t really that engaged.
    This was a mistake, as the best strategy, ALMOST always, in any competition is just to put your foot on the other guy’s throat and keep it there as long as needed. The President had a chance to to do that and didn’t. That could have easily led to a runaway ala McCain and THAT’s always , ALWAYS has been the best way to help the down ticket races. I do agree that pretty much everyone, myself included, expected Romney to say really stupid things. The fact that he didn’t is just evidence that he doesn’t consider lies and flip-flopping stupid…..

    How many times has a rope-a-dope strategy actually worked? ONCE by my counting, under unique circumstances. It was prob’ly not only the ONLY way Ali would have won, it was likely the only way he could have kept from being utterly destroyed. Going into that fight, I was actually fearful for his life.

  136. Yeah, much as I’d like to believe it, but no. Obama was tired and distracted, and completely unprepared for Romney dropping bullshit mountain on him. I don’t think he could believe the constant stream of lies that spewed forth, and it blew a fuse in his brain. You could see him internally going “WTF?” as Romney flopped every position he claims to have taken in a dive to the center and he simply didn’t know what to do to counter it.

    I’d have preferred he’d get all Biden on Romney, but this angry black guy meme apparently has legs.

    Romney did present his vague “policies” pretty well, but I don’t know how Obama could just stand there and miss all the over the plate softballs he got lobbed. I’m extremely disappointed he didn’t go in for the kill given such an open goal – I could have done better, and I’m crap at that. Apparently there was no debate prep, or watching of John Stewart.

    Hopefully he’ll show up for the next two debates, otherwise it will be a case of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory again. As a backup, I’ve got my application to move to Australia underway…

  137. I don’t think either party is intelligent enough to come up with such a complicated strategy.

  138. Nope. I could believe that someone in his circle thought of such a scenario, but not that anyone would actually go forward with it. Just too risky–once you give up any sort of control to your opponent, there’s always the chance that you might not get it back. I can’t imagine anyone at that level taking such a chance.

  139. I think this idea is ridiculous and not even faintly plausible; or at least not plausible for the way our politics are currently structured. Occam’s razor would seem to win out here. Romney came to the debate really prepared and Obama just didn’t take it seriously and thought he could get by with a few talking points.

    Now I wonder why you posted this theory in the first place. I don’t think you could give it serious consideration, so is it just a test to see if someone could actually make a compelling case for it being true, regardless of the actual truth of it, or just a test to see how many would be shaken by one bad debate performance and would choose hope over reason?

  140. The simplest explanation is the best one. Obama was outmatched by Romney. He never has been much of a debater…Clinton in 2008 usually boxed him around pretty good if I remember right. He doesn’t think quickly on his feet, and fell for the myth that Romney was an empty suit that got rich because he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Maybe he’s learned a lesson, maybe not. But I have my doubts considering his belief that he had won the debate coming off the stage last week. The lack of self-awareness is scary.

    To John’s theory that it was a giant rope a dope strategy…if that’s the case, that will be the greatest miscalculation in political history. One debate, 90 minutes long, has wiped out 150 million dollars worth of anti-Romney advertising. Obama and his crew had Romney defined as Thurston Howell. The debate destroyed that caricature.

  141. I do not think that any political machine has enough control of public opinion to feel the confidence necessary to employ that strategy. There is one strategy that could be employed to guarantee a win…dump Biden for Hillary. I’ll vote Romney, but even my friends who will vote Obama do not like Biden.

  142. Obama is just a weak person- we’ve seen it when he got bullied by the banks, the republican congress during the debate over the Bush tax breaks, by letting the military run over him on stuff as cut and dry as closing Gitmo- the only guts he has ever shown is in pushing around his (former) political base. Ralph Nader was 100% right about him.

  143. Put me in for “silly theory”–not the least of which is the huge imbalance of potential loss (the presidency) vs gain (“possibly” less funding for other GOP campaigns).

    Here’s my more plausible theory:

    Obama knew going in that the first debate was his weakest (focus on economy, no participatory audience). He didn’t “throw it” per se, but…he had a conscious strategy to keep it very, very civil. He avoided going after Romney (48%, etc.) via “zingers” because he knew if he did that, it would open the door for Mitt to do the same. He also knew Mitt wanted to come across as more personable, so he felt that if he (Obama) didn’t start the harsh words, Mitt wouldn’t initiate them for fear of coming across not “likeable”–a more likeable, human persona being a presumed goal of the GOP side this round. Basically, Obama said–I’ll go easy so HE will have to go easy this round too–I might not win, but I won’t be irreparably damaged and can make it up on the next debates which I am much less vulnerable to attack on and/or the format is more to my advantage. To some extent it worked–as much as Mitt is touted as winning–he never went for the jugular, never tried to use “zingers” on Obama. There are pretty much no truly damaging sound bites from the debate.

    That said, I don’t think Obama had any idea how much the days following the debate would create a story (greatly exaggerated IMO) of a “crushing” defeat, and cause an actual significant loss in the polls. Knowing that he might well have rethought the strat going in.

    I expect him to be much, much more aggressive and impressive in the next two, in any case.

  144. Speculations about eleventy-dimensional chess strategies — and conspiracy theories with that level of complexity — remind me of the famously unsuccessful launch of New Coke in 1985. When Coca-Cola had reversed the move, its president and COO Donald Keough spoke at a press conference. A reporter said that some were speculating the whole move had been deliberate, deep and devious, intended to gain mindshare and highlight consumer loyalty to Classic Coke. Keough replied:

    “We’re not that dumb, and we’re not that smart.”

  145. it would take a lot of effort on Obama’s part. they just need to count on the stupidity of americans like they did last time in order to get the fool re-elected

  146. I agree with your assertion that the last debate, painful as it was to witness, was a strategic move. Obama kept looking down at his papers and appeared to be taking notes. Those notes were probably stellar on observable weaknesses in the Romney tirade of lies compiled upon more lies.

    My bet is that in this next debate, now much bolstered by the solidly consistent and strong Biden standing in this week’s vice-pres. debate, that Obama comes out swinging. Like Jon Stewart pointed out, “Obama is the luckiest guy in the world because Romney just keeps getting dumber by the day..”

  147. My wife actually thought that perhaps something like this was being played. I consider it entirely possible, but I also heard that the date of the first debate was also Obama’s wedding anniversary, so it could have just been our president being cranky because he had to hang out with Romney in front of a national audience instead of spending the evening with his wife.

  148. On the other hand, wasn’t the Evil Spock, also a genius at multidimensional Chess, from an alternate world where Romney advisor Robert Heron Bork was Chief Justice? “Mirror, Mirror” was, as you well know, an episode of Star Trek: The Original Series, written by Jerome Bixby and directed by Marc Daniels. It was a second-season episode, #33, production #39, and was broadcast for the first time on 6 October 1967, and repeated on April 12, 1968. The episode has a transporter mishap swapping Captain Kirk and his companions with their evil counterparts in a parallel universe. In the so-called Mirror Universe, the Enterprise is a ship of the Terran Empire, an organization as evil as the United Federation of Planets is benevolent. While Scotty searches for a way to return them to the correct universe, Kirk goes to his quarters and finds the beautiful Lieutenant Marlena Moreau, who refers to herself as the “Captain’s Woman,” stretched out on his bed, agreeing with the overthrow of Roe v. Wade. Congressman Ryan was the guy in the red shirt, going into battle against Joe Biden. Or something like that…

  149. i think he learned from his mom and grandparents and Indonesia not to be an angry black man and is reticent to show anger, was shocked at the number of lies and couldn’t just repeat “liar liar liar liar”,,(ala Joh Stewart) and still look presidential..,,I think his campaign may well have expected the challenger to win the first but NOT LIKE THAT and unfortunately, I also believe that even if that was their plan, it is obvious that the SECRET PACS have plenty of money to buy into taking the House/ Senate/ and Presidency…we millions of Obama supporters need to send in what we can to all three battlegrounds

  150. I am going to concur with the “not plausible” crowd. Risky, requires amazing psychic powers, etc. Also, in my experience, higher level campaign types tend to be excitable and paranoid control-freaks. Uncontrolled variables send them into anxiety attacks.

    More likely is that the President is a busy guy, debates have never been his forte, and he can’t afford to come out swinging, and be perceived as Angry Black Man. He already faces the “arrogant” (i.e. “uppity”) meme. Add to that Romney’s bald-faced BS, and it’s likely that the strategy for this debate was simply to tread water and take lots of notes.

    Back at HQ, all the campaign advisers were taking notes as well, not only on the debate, but on the insta-reactions to each thing each candidate said. After, I’m sure they compared the President’s notes to all the other data, watched the debates another xmillion times, and have come up with tactics for the next rounds.

    Also, Biden has always been the attack dog. He’s Jovial Uncle Joe, enormously popular with the base, and he’s been winning debates and elections since dinosaurs roamed the earth. He could have taken off his shoe and banged it on the table, and still fired up Democrats. Half would find it ironic, and the other half would have perceived it as kick-ass-w00t. The VP is excellent when leveraged against the enthusiasm gap. This, in particular, is interesting, because Republicans have a persistent meme in which the President is lazy and stupid (racist dog-whistle, natch) and the VP is senile and doddering (ageist dog-whistle).

    Buddha’s right teat, how I love politics! Go team blue :-)

  151. Nah, I’m a big fan of Occam’s Razor. Obama just had a bad fraking night. Does happen, you know – even if very few of us can trigger a collective nervous breakdown on the internet when it happens. (Really, Andrew Sullivan – who I respect a LOT – shat himself so hard I was hoping he had a supply of adult diapers to hand.)

  152. I think your stretching here. I’m pretty center when it comes to politics and I don’t like what I see coming from the dems. Having said that I’m not 100 percent crazy about Romney and what the republicans are saying, but they are winning these debates so far. At least in my opinion. I seriously believe if the democrats what to win the presidential election they need more money pumped into the Obama ring. I actually believe both men are wrong for our country, but who is right may be a harder question to answer.

  153. Obama strategically threw the first debate<— Occam's Razor. This _is_ the most plausible explanation. Those commenters who think it's completely outlandish that a candidate wouldn't play rope-a-dope is naiive. Romney, for that matter, was playing his own rope-a-dope when he came on stage as a Massachusetts moderate after months of campaigning as a right wing tea drinker. Obama is a sophisticated debater. See YouTube for debate clips from '08– between the Democratic debates and the Obama/McCain debates, there is plenty of footage available to corroborate. I hadn't even considered the wider angle of campaign funding, but I think it's probably one of many factors that helped Team Obama decide on the 'head down' strategy. I personally think Obama could've come out in this first debate, guns blazing, ready to go, but he would've come off as defensive, like many incumbents seeking his office. Unfortunately, he would also have fulfilled the 'angry black man' stereotype that many Americans hold, even if it goes unacknowledged. Not to mention the tendency for some to view him as arrogant when he pulls out his professorial demeanor and shows opponents what's what.

    Obama had two, really 3, more debates to win back his big boy pants. Everyone who knows anything about Biden knew he'd dominate Ryan and have the balls and political clout to call the lies as he hears them (and, I'm sorry, but if someone is going to lie or even unwittingly misrepresent facts, then they deserve to be interrupted– and it is he who lies that is rude for not acknowledging or apologizing for said lies. Biden was right to defend himself against the lies as they were told). Interestingly, thanks to Sarah Palin, most Americans had never seen how savvy a debater was Biden because he only had to keep his mouth shut while Palin dug herself a hole in '08.

    Obama may also have calculated that he'd do better in the format presented in the second 2 debates: seated and after blowing off the steam in round 1.

    All in all, there was nothing machiavellian or even "massive" about Obama leaving his A-game at home for debate 1. Easy as pie, really. The only thing that was (clearly) difficult was to look down and look calm while Romney uttered lie after lie (for documentation of this assertion google: "Romney debate lies")… not to mention position reversal after position reversal.

    With all due respect, those of you who don't think that *this IS* politics, should wake up to reality because the wool is being pulled over you eyes and there is too much at stake to not truly understand what is happening.

  154. Obama strategically threw the first debate<— Occam's Razor. This _is_ the most plausible explanation. Those commenters who think it's completely outlandish that a candidate wouldn't play rope-a-dope is naiive.

    @callingcolleen: What I find rather naive is the complex rationalizations some folks have to come up with to avoid allowing even the remote possibility that their preferred candidates are human beings like the rest of us. Yes, Obama has shown the ability to play a longer game than politicians who can think further ahead that the next news/polling cycle. But, personally, I’d sack any fricking campaign strategist who’d suggest it was a good idea to deliberately sleepwalk through something as high profile as a debate just over a month out from election day, in the hope it might just pay off down stream in ways you can neither accurately predict or meaningfully control. In politics, as in life, you can be so clever it ends up going coming back around to stupid.

  155. I prefer my theory: the Republicans are TRYING to lose this race to set Ron Paul up for a landslide in 2016. Hence, Romney has been switching positions and occasionally saying the dumbest things he can think of (47%, insulting allied nations, borrow money from parents for college, etc). Except the average American voterdoesn’t really care about foreign policy; they just want a job so it’s not working as planned.

    And the presidential debate? That was a Democratic joke on the Republicans.

    On a completely unrelated topic, has anyone come up with a sarcasm font yet?

  156. I used to think religion was the only force which could turn intelligent people’s brains to mush. After reading this post, it would appear I was wrong. As Scalzi proves here, politics can be just as corrosive to logic and common sense. Blind faith for a political party is as debilitating as blind faith to a religion. Disappointing.

  157. Those commenters who think it’s completely outlandish that a candidate wouldn’t play rope-a-dope is naiive.

    A candidate who deliberately played mild in order to hit hard later wouldn’t be announcing he was going to get more aggressive in the next debate. So, no, I don’t see it as ‘naive’ to take the less interesting theory that Obama messed up over the more interesting n-dimensional chess theory.

  158. @Xopher; there’s a blog equivalent of that guy during the Q&A part of the panel who says “This is really more of a comment than a question….”

  159. I think it’s plausible, if risky. Over and over, one thing the Obama campaign has done right is……. timing. Rope-a-dope at this point did several things:
    1) Gave Romney time to measure out his rope for himself,
    1b) Giving the OFA campaign plenty of feedstock,
    2) Lowered expectations on Obama.
    3) Set up Biden to cut loose on Ryan, and anyone who thinks a Senator with 39 years of experience wasn’t going to handle Ryan isn’t thinking straight.

    I listened to the President’s debate on radio, and in that medium he was the standout winner, IMO.

  160. Time to geek out: “I’m not clear — who would win in multidimensional Chess — Science Officer Spock or Dr. Sheldon Cooper? ”


  161. I was going to say, “Naaaah, the presidency is too important to risk on the off chance of having a few more D votes in Congress.” But then I thought about what Obama would do with a second term if he got one. And the answer is, Cthulhu only knows. It all depends on what kind of Congress he has to work with. If the Republicans retake the Senate and keep the House, Obama won’t have much to sign, and perhaps a lot to veto.

    So you could argue that Obama really is rolling the dice, betting that this move would either give him a historic second term or no second term.

    But I’m still inclined to disbelieve. The strategy seems at once too complex and too brittle. There seems to be an equally compelling argument for Obama to come out with a strong first debate performance, blow the race wide open, and hope that his dominance translates into long coattails for the other races.

    When looking at this strategy, you also have to consider how big the money differential actually is. Is Romney’s PAC money advantage more like 3-to-1 or more like 10-to-1? In the latter case, it might make sense for Obama to keep himself as the target of the PAC money. In the former case, a wide-open race would free up Obama’s resources as well.

  162. This scenario is as plausible as a scenario where GOP donors put out the word that they would abandon Romney if he lost the first debate in order to get Obama to throw the first debate.

  163. Eric RoM October 14, 2012 at 10:24 pm:

    In re: listening vs watching – I had the same experience, as have several other people I’ve compared notes with and/or read their blogs. We who do not have/watch/like TV experience politics differently, it seems.

  164. John, I just saw your post. Minister Faust and I both speculated — independently, although each of us later spotted what the other had done — along similar lines, shortly after the first debate.

  165. Gawd, Scalzi, I pray that’s not true. But if the Prez didn’t screw up on purpose, then he’s rilly off his game, and so are his crew. He’s still got my vote, but when he started the whole debate with the stiff anniversary remarks to the wife, I started shouting ‘*WOT* areyoudoing?!’ at the tv. And for the first twenty minutes I chanted, ‘Look at me. Look at us. Look into the red light and acknowledge all of us watching.’ but I eventually gave it up as a bad job.

    I’m not a Romney fan and I know he won that debate. He made all his lying, rubbishy, CEO BS seem reasonable. If Obama doesn’t step up tomorrow, he’s going to lose this election.

  166. 7 comments in and there was already a slur that no one thought was important enough to remove? Please note that using the word “Democrat” as an adjective as Goeff does at 9:35 AM with his “Democrat party”, instead of the correct word, “Democratic” is a right wing slur. Please don’t let slurs stand.

  167. Peyton:

    1. Alternately, everyone else decided (correctly) that the best way to deal with someone obnoxious enough to employ “democrat” as a slur was to ignore them rather than focus on it, as you just did, thus giving it attention and possibly pulling the thread off topic.

    2. I don’t recall giving you moderation privileges on this or any other thread, so try not to give any further direction on that score.

  168. Commenting before I read any comments by others:

    I think it’s a plausible scenario, mainly because I believe Obama IS smart enough to think that far ahead, unlike some politicians I’ve seen. I’d kinda like to believe it, but I think we’ll KNOW when we see what the second debate brings. If Obama cuts Mitt to ribbons in the second debate I think we’d have to give strong probability to the theory.

    Still, the Big Money is already pouring into various congressional races, notably in Ohio.

  169. I wasn’t trying to give direction, I was trying to plead with you for action. I apologize for failing to make that more clear.

  170. This is actually a scenario that occurred to me shortly after the debate, but I dismissed it as wishful thinking on my part. However, I think the more likely scenario is that Obama just takes it too easy in the first debate and watches what the other guy is going to do, sometimes to the degree that he doesn’t seem strong himself. The first Obama/McCain debate felt very similar to the Obama/Romney debate in terms of the energy level we expected from Obama vs the energy level we got. We didn’t feel like we had a “win” debate, and were disheartened. Then Obama had clear wins in the next two debates. Perhaps because he spent that first one mostly watching, and not impressing us viewers?

  171. Despite the much heartier performance by Obama in the October 16th debate, I am still reluctant to give much credence to this theory. It seems like the sort of “Casey struck out” style hubris that would risk leading to the catastrophic outcome of a lost election, and I think Obama’s political team would realize that. Furthermore, it feels like its based on the hyper-competency fallacy that underpins most conspiracy theories- that people in high positions never screw up, and therefore every event is actually part of a larger plan.

    I think it is more likely that they simply underestimated Romney based on his previous debate performances in the primaries, and did not expect him to stick to his guns so strongly on things that they knew to be provably false or unsupportable. Basically, that they came prepared for the wrong debate. I think Biden’s extremely aggressive performance in his debate was a test-run at implementing all the criticisms that were laid against Obama coming out of that first debate, and that tonight’s performance was a leavened middle ground that was more aggressive but still controlled enough not to seem overly mean or risk invoking the boogeyman of the “angry black man” image.

  172. So. Um. I was completely and totally in the camp of Obama was underprepared, he was tired, he was just playing it too safe, he had no reaction to Mitt Romney’s lies, etc. He does not play 11-dimensional chess. Sure, there was that whole thing in July of 2008 where he didn’t seem to be doing well, and then, with the whole country watching, gave a speech about how this election was too big for small ideas, and sure, he is the very first black President, and yeah, he’s the first guy in 20 years of either party to get more than 51% of the vote, and yes, he got a big health care reform bill passed that’s slowly rising in popularity… but no. Nobody throws a debate.

    And then the second debate happened, and he crushed Romney in every conceivable way, and Romney actually got called out for lying BY THE MODERATOR, and he’s got the momentum back, and now there’s only one debate left, and boy did Ann Romney look unhappy, and yes, a lot of big money stayed in the Presidential race as opposed to going into key Senate races…

    Hmmmm. Hmmmmm.

  173. Well, y’all, I’m having fun. I believe our President is a man with a far seeing vision. I’ve had a suspicion from the first debate that this is part of a much longer, broad strategy and that he was feeding Romney all the rope he needed to hang himself with. Romney, being the grimacing, grasping greedster he is ran off with what he thought was the lions share. Rope-a-dope is only part of it.

  174. I suppose Scalzi’s scenario is possible, in the same way I suppose it’s possible that Bigfoot exists. But there’s more evidence for Bigfoot. Lots more.

  175. I do believe that the Obama strategy during the first debate was to let Mitt Romney make mistakes while Obama kept his poker face. What you don’t say can’t hurt you. Romney was being “read” to see his dance and his swing. Instead of coming up with 12 million new jobs, he publicly fired Big Bird and Jim Lehrer. The Democrats collected bullet points for retaliation, and Obama didn’t reveal his “tell”. When you “steer” your candidate to victory, an excellent strategy is to let your opponent make all the mistakes, and true to form, all political strategists have seen the movie, “The Sting”.

  176. If rope-a-dope was Obama’s strategy in round 1, what was his strategy in round two? He was better, maybe won on points last night but didn’t do much persuading. While the polls show Obama won the debate by 5-7%, they also show he didn’t win many votes.

    “In the CNN poll, 25% said they were more likely to vote for Obama and 25% said more likely to vote Romney. In the PPP poll, it was 37% more likely for Obama and 36% more likely to vote for Romney. If you watched the Fox News or MSNBC undecided voter focus groups you saw more voters decide to vote Romney than Obama.”

  177. That theory went out the window! Obama in no way “Won” the debate, at best he held his own. Next theory please…..

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