G.L.Piggy [at] gmail.com
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Michael Eric Dyson makes the argument that the Daily Caller video of President Obama’s 2007 address at Hampton University rattled the President in his debate last night. David Frum asks the same question and at The Atlantic Garance Franke-Ruta trots out some sociology jargon, reacquainting us with the term ‘stereotype threat’.
This is a just-so explanation. It could be right and it could be wrong, and it sounds good enough to Obama’s base that it doesn’t really matter. But in reality, lacking proof, we have no reason to believe that Obama was put on tilt by that video. The more plausible explanation is that Romney out-debated him. There was such a huge divide between Obama’s passiveness and the stereotype of an “angry black man” that we’d then have to question Obama’s judgment on other policy matters. If Obama is so easily thrown off track by an overhyped video – one that didn’t really offer any new evidence of Obama’s radicalism – that merely fits the criticism of him that he’s weak when it counts. Mitt Romney has been blasted for being Thurston Howell III – by David Brooks and last night by Van Jones – but did he back down from the debilitating stereotype that he was a blood-sucking millionaire that eats babies like a prole eats Funyons? No. He didn’t.
Megan McArdle laid it out:
Mitt Romney, on the other hand, was in excellent form. He is not, I think, a very good candidate, but he is an excellent debater, in the bland American style. His consulting and private equity experience really showed. He had an answer ready for everything Lehrer and Obama threw at him, and his answers were punchy and memorable. He demonstrated mastery of fairly arcane policy details–when the president threw out his evergreen line about killing “corporate welfare” for oil companies making a killing off of high prices, Romney (correctly) retorted that these expensing rules were changed for the major oil companies years ago; they benefit small independent drillers and operators who account for only a small portion of the oil supply. From the look on Obama’s face, it wasn’t clear to me that the president had understood this.
Through the debate you could see Obama trying hard to recall facts and talking points. He was laboring through his responses and arguments. Romney was just firing them out there. He was confident in his responses.
Besides the exchange on oil company tax loopholes, the part of the debate on health care was telling. Obama cited Cleveland Clinic as an example of how hospitals can innovate and save money on the services they provide patients. He said:
Or, alternatively, we can figure out, how do we make the cost of care more effective? And there are ways of doing it.
So at Cleveland Clinic, one of the best health care systems in the world, they actually provide great care cheaper than average. And the reason they do is because they do some smart things. They — they say, if a patient’s coming in, let’s get all the doctors together at once, do one test instead of having the patient run around with 10 tests. Let’s make sure that we’re providing preventive care so we’re catching the onset of something like diabetes. Let’s — let’s pay providers on the basis of performance as opposed to on the basis of how many procedures they’ve — they’ve engaged in.
This seemed like a prepared shout-out to Cleveland Clinic, as if by mentioning that the clinic was innovating to cut costs that this somehow speaks to the government’s role in health care. It was a citation that Obama had probably placed before frothy-mouthed audiences, but Romney was not just a sparring partner. And what he did here was somewhat impressive. He took Obama’s citation of Cleveland Clinic and then threw some more names out there. People prefer more names versus few names. Name dropping – of individuals or businesses – works for a reason. Directly pointing out that government cannot take credit for private business’ innovation was also powerful:
Your example of the Cleveland Clinic is my case in point, along with several others I could describe.
This is the private market. These are small — these are enterprises competing with each other, learning how to do better and better jobs. I used to consult to businesses — excuse me, to hospitals and to health care providers. I was astonished at the creativity and innovation that exists in the American people.
In order to bring the cost of health care down, we don’t need to have a board of 15 people telling us what kinds of treatments we should have. We instead need to put insurance plans, providers, hospitals, doctors on target such that they have an incentive, as you say, performance pay, for doing an excellent job, for keeping costs down, and that’s happening. Innermountain Healthcare does it superbly well, Mayo Clinic is doing it superbly well, Cleveland Clinic, others.
Also, there was the subtle “I know what I’m talking about, and you don’t” bit. To me, that was a gotcha moment because it showed the biggest difference in the candidates’ style of debate. Obama is OK when he can throw out examples uncontested. But Romney had a much stronger command of facts, figures, and examples. He didn’t have to refer to his mental notes to make his arguments. This builds confidence and debilitates the opponent, and this debilitation was much greater than any debilitation Obama might have suffered from a repetition of what conservatives have been saying about him from day 1.