Conventional wisdom has it that Romney succeeded in avoiding any significant gaffe during the debate. I'm not so sure. The "Romney wants to fire Big Bird" meme is rapidly going viral. It won't overshadow Romney's debate win the way Eastwood's chair fiasco overshadowed his convention speech, but will have legs because it symbolizes a broader reality about Romney -- that he wants to cut the deficit by taking away relatively-inexpensive things that are highly popular with ordinary people, while leaving the huge military budget and historically-low taxes on the wealthy intact. And Big Bird is a beloved, harmless, somewhat vulnerable character, evoking the Romney-as-bully meme. (Update
: Yes, it looks like Big Bird is the big story
of the debate -- found via Smartypants
In broader politics, there's some good news this week. Obama's Gallup approval rating has shot up to its highest level since 2009
. Both Obama and Romney made gains in favorability ratings, but Romney's gains were mostly among Republicans, while Obama's were mostly among independents
-- that is, Romney gained among those who would have voted for him anyway, whereas more of Obama's gain is among swing voters. (Actually independents have skewed heavily pro-Romney in polling so far, but that probably reflects the fact that many Tea Party types now self-identify as independents rather than Republicans -- and makes Obama's gains among independents all the more impressive.)
Those results aren't so surprising if you think about it. The kind of left-wing purists who criticize Obama while ignoring how much worse any Republican would be, may well have been jerked awake by Romney's debate win and realize that Obama doesn't, in fact, have this thing in the bag -- and have decided they like him after all now that they're forced to take account of the alternative. After watching Romney flounder for months, it's not surprising that Republicans would be enthused at seeing him finally win something. Obama's quiet if plodding fact-based performance might well appeal to thoughtful independent voters (not the teabaggers-turned-independents I mentioned).
It's easy for political junkies to think that the mass of ordinary voters are rather simple-minded creatures, easily swayed by glitter rather than substance, and just not capable of the kind of analysis and insight we ourselves bring to bear on politics. It's a comforting attitude (especially when our side loses), but it's a dangerous trap. Yes, someone can always edit together a YouTube clip of people who don't know what continent India is on or whatever (and would you
do any better in a quiz on, say, electrical engineering or car repair or plumbing, in which those people may be earning a living?), but I'm convinced most people are much better at knowing bullshit when they see it than political pundits and bloggers give them credit for.
Yes, Romney won the debate, but the debates are only a means to the real end in view, which is to win the election. And I don't think the debate will help Romney much toward that. Even most Obama supporters agree that Romney won, but I can't see any Obama supporter voting for Romney on that basis. If anything, as noted above, some independents are moving to Obama. It will take a few days for the debate's effects to show up in the polls, but I'm betting they'll be small -- and temporary, once Obama starts using the massive arsenal
of lies and flip-flops which Romney handed him.
Romney has won a battle. But it wasn't a very important battle in the broader war, and the victory will prove Pyrrhic.