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Robin Lakoff Headshot

Was Debate One a Pyrrhic Victory?

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Debate One is over, and the pundits have declared Mitt Romney the victor. The only remaining question is: was his victory overwhelming, or did Romney only win because Obama didn't?

That is today's story. But will it be the way we tell it after November 7?

On the surface it seems set in stone: Romney was crisp, Obama slow on the uptake. Romney made jokes, Obama swallowed them. Romney was the man with the plan.

But... could it be that, in the end, what happened on October 3 will stay on October 3, and have no effect on the future? Could Romney's victory have been Pyrrhic? (Pyrrhus was the King of Epirus who, in the year 280 BCE, won a battle against the Romans but at such cost that he remarked afterward, "Another such victory and I am lost.")

The point of presidential debates is not to win one debate, or even three, but to win the presidency. Short of risibly gross ineptitude, a less than thrilling performance in Debate One does not diminish a candidate's chances. And the president's performance, while certainly not what his supporters were envisioning, was far from grossly inept -- neither tongue-tied nor gaffe-laden -- but merely no better than Romney's, and since Romney was supposed to lose, Obama's being no better made it seem worse, or at least worse than it actually was.

How, then, should this debate be properly evaluated? Critics can focus on either short- or long-term aftereffects. One is easy; the other, though, matters more.

The short-term: who won? The long-term: who is now in a better position to win in the end? And while there is little argument that Romney won in the short term, the president's team may have been working within a long-term strategy, the genius of which will only become apparent on November 8. This strategy depends a great deal on harnessing the power of narrative structure and gratifying the pundits, whose job it is to spin the story of Election 2012.

The kind of narrative these tellers like is complex: one in which the path from Point A to Point B is full of unexpected twists and turns that make the teller look ingenious. The side that offers tellers the tastier narrative is the one that they will favor more and more as time goes on.

It was only a month ago that there was a simple, universal story line: the economy was in shambles, there were no jobs, the voters cared about nothing else, Romney was all but unstoppable. Then came some serious gaffes by Romney, and the contrast between the conventions, with the Republicans emerging disorganized and bedraggled, the Democrats energized and unified. So the narrative shifted abruptly: Obama was on a winning trajectory, he was all but unstoppable.

The election is now just a month away, and to hold our attention, the narratives must shift more quickly. After the first debate, most analysts are zigzagging the narrative back: Romney is moving toward victory. So it's not surprising that in the immediate aftermath of the debate Romney's people are sounding ebullient.

Perhaps more surprising, so are the president and his people. The president jokingly remarked at a campaign stop on Thursday morning, "I met a very spirited person who claimed to be Mitt Romney... ha ha." If he really believed he had lost, he would certainly not be conveying such good cheer to his audience. But his joking that the sent, and was meant to send, the message, "I may have 'lost,' but I have won."

And that was a truthful message. He didn't lose; he failed to win in the short term. So in the next two presidential debates, he will be the underdog. Romney, going in as the favorite, will have to produce performances that are not only as good as his first, but better (since the excellent "new Romney" is the new old Romney). And if in either debate the president pulls off the gloves and plays to win, he will score much higher than if he had raised expectations in the first debate. And the closer a debate is to the election, the more of an effect it is apt to have (if in fact debate performance, except of the most extreme kind, ever has any effect at all).

Furthermore, the narrative-spinners now have their desired narrative arc wrapped up and ready to go. Today's message: Romney's the one. But by October 17 (or October 23) that could undergo a satisfactorily surprising metamorphosis to: It was the president all along (as we've been telling you). The narrators will look smart. This will make them feel good. That in turn will create in them goodwill toward the candidate, which can't hurt his chances.

The president's joke is on those analysts who see debates as decontextualized, not as part of a stream of pre-election events: the speeches, the conventions, the zingers, the gaffes... each of which, obviously or not, lends meaning to everything that precedes or follows. Romney's "47%" gaffe continues to echo because it fits into a context created by Ann's Cadillacs and Mitt's $10,000 bet. Obama's misstatements fade away fast because they don't fit into any such prevailing narrative. Likewise, this debate will acquire meaning only as the first of three, and the one furthest from the end-game, and will have persuasive effect only as a point of comparison with what comes later. In this way, when the game is over, Obama's performance in Debate One may very well be seen as the turning point today's pundits are calling it -- only it will be seen then as the turning point that Obama's brilliant strategists created to make his victory inevitable.

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