James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Debates

  • They Can't Both Be Right, Cont.

    Why do partisans and analysts say things that aren't true? Because there's no cost to doing so.

    From Republican friends -- and not-such-friends -- response to this earlier report is, In your dreams! They say that Romney really does have the "clear eyes, full heart, can't lose" momentum behind him. No matter what the polls may show.

    From Democrats and others, a variety of messages of which the one below is a good representative. I'll quote it; then return to finishing an overdue article; then start showing more Foxconn pics. A reader writes:

    I fear you are being waaaay too kind to the people pushing the Romney line. The far more likely story is that there is no actual conflict of systems because one group is simply lying.

    The Romney partisans, of course, do so to create expectations that will suppress Democratic enthusiasm. a) They know that in the even of an Obama win they will not only not look foolish, but they can come out and admit they were "bluffing" and suffer no consequences. Reporters will roll their eyes at this roguish behavior and keep coming back to them for quotes in the next election, because hey, they give good quotes. Dick Morris still gets quoted by some people! b) Those who were most loyal to the candidate will be viewed more favorably in future years than those who were seen as pessimists or who "gave up" before it was all over. Being honest would in fact hurt him whether Romney wins or loses. So a rational Romney-ite would lie if he knew Obama was likely ahead -- it benefits his side now, and will not hurt him later, whatever the result.

    The supposedly non-partisan observers do it because they can only pitch one of two narratives: this is close, and will be decided by slim margins, or this is falling into Romney's lap. The former is old news, and boring. The latter is exciting. Again, though, there is no downside to being wrong. Nate Silver in his book measured the predictions of pundits on the McLaughlin Group and found them no more accurate than coin tosses. Yet nobody ever cared about past bad predictions because accuracy was not the issue -- having something interesting to say was. Nate Silver has his reputation -- and thus livelihood -- on the line. Gut-instinct pundits really don't.

    (To the extent you are hearing Romney is leading from people who you respect as thoughtful and serious, I would be wrong. But how many are truly a) nonpartisan, b) experienced, and c) well-informed?) [JF note: Many of those I have heard from are "thoughtful" and well-informed; none I can think of are nonpartisan.]

    This raises the question, why doesn't Obama's camp follow the same logic? Why aren't they trying the same thing? It has to be the leadership styles of the candidates and those they surround themselves with. Romney and his people are gung-ho, all American, outgoing... Obama is the exact opposite. As John Keegan wrote of U.S. Grant in "the Mask of Command," "He lacked the essential quality to be what Jacques Barzun called a 'booster,' one of those bustling, bonhomous, penny-counting chance-grabbing optimists who .... were to make America's fortune." Romney is 100% booster. Obama is much more Grant. I take comfort from that comparison.

    The lack of any penalty, career-wise or in other terms, for "experts" who are completely wrong in their forecasts was one of the themes I went into in Breaking the News.

  • Last Debate

    Obama's best performance, and Romney's worst

    I haven't checked any reaction to the debate on Twitter, email, TV commentary, or other things of the sort. Watched this just now with my wife, while more or less off the plane from China, and this is the raw first-impression dump.

    As a matter of performance, this was as one-sided a win for Obama as the first debate was a one-sided embarrassment for him. Romney's ill-at-easeness on nearly every subject that came up was palpable, as was Obama's barely-contained certainty on all these issues (which burbled out mainly with the "we have these ships that go under the sea, called submarines" line).

    As a matter of substance, it was depressing in principle that this was the level of presidential-campaign discussion on China, India (nothing, or close to it), climate change and the environment (nothing I heard), energy (next to nothing), Europe (ditto).

    But it was more striking as a matter of substance that on virtually no issue did Romney make an actual criticism, of any sort, of Obama's policy or record. Including topics where he used to disagree, like the timeline for withdrawal for Afghanistan! Instead it was, "I agree, but you should have done it better."

    I have no idea whether anyone was still watching at this point. I have no idea how much these last-of-three debates matter. I have less idea why Obama let himself do what he did the first time around, or why Romney was not better primed for this one. But I know that Obama did very well this evening, and Romney put up his worst showing.

    The debates are now behind us. Two weeks to go.

  • More on 12-Dimensional Chess and the Discombobulation of Mitt Romney

    Has a commander-in-chief learned how to get under a CEO's skin?

    Following an earlier reader assessment of the subtle ways in which Barack Obama may have been trying to rile Mitt Romney -- apart from the quite obvious jibes and challenges he applied in the second debate -- another reader adds this observation:

    Obama also did one other thing - constantly interjected comments like "that's not true" - or "you're wrong Governor" while Romney was speaking.  My experience in corporate life showed me very few CEOs or execs that would tolerate those types of disrespectful interjections while they are talking.   Romney becomes exasperated quite easily - and then he goes to adrenaline pumping "attacky" Romney --- "I'll give you some advice."  --- or following up on the text of the Rose Garden speech - even when Obama said "proceed Governor" - a sure sign that this was a trap.   

    Two things happen when the Governor's adrenaline pumps - first Romney becomes nonstrategic and unfocused.  Second - he has to have the last word (Crowley saying Governor, please take your seat).   I believe subconsciously, women voters are not impressed with a man that "has to have the last word."  I'm expecting a lot more of this tactic.

    This rings true -- about what Obama was doing, and how Romney reacted. In a few hours we'll have a better idea of whether it was a concerted strategy on Obama's part, and whether Romney has thought about the ways he should respond.

  • Your 12-Dimensional-Chess Strategy Memo for the Debates

    'If you throw a knife, he'll respond with a knife.' A hidden mind-game in the debate?

    There is plenty of guidance on our site, and elsewhere, about what subjects should come up for discussion at tonight's final debate. Please read!

    But if, after you've tanked up on substance, you find yourself still hankering for a little gamesmanship / slugfest-strategy analysis, it's worth considering the note below, from a reader in California. It's possible that the reader is over-thinking this, and that he's imagined an approach more complex than what the Obama side really had thought through. But maybe not, and it provides one more angle to watch for this evening. Emphasis added:

    I was re-reading the transcript and re-watching the second debate. I think much has been made of the weariness of Obama in the first debate, the tired body language. However, in the analysis of the debates, people have somewhat missed the most striking development.

    The Obama staff figured out, in the second debate, both Mitt Romney's largest technical weakness, and how it fits into a loophole in the debate format. Obama back-loaded substance in almost every question asked in debate #2. That is to say, he would routinely make light, bland, mostly conventional talking points, and save the actual confrontation of substance for the rebuttal or follow-up sequence. This forced Romney to bicker and interrupt constantly, and it remains true from the first question on. On women's rights, Obama starts middle of the road, and then in the rebuttal, hits him on contraception. On Libya, he opens with boilerplate, Romney comes back, and then Obama hits him with the coffins and offense. Finally, the strategies in their last answers. Obama saved the 47 percent for when he knew Romney could not respond, which is already widely acknowledged. What is less acknowledged is this strategy was employed through the entirety of the debate.

    It's a key flaw in how Romney operates. If you throw a boilerplate answer out, he will feel safe and respond with boilerplate. If you throw a knife, he will want to respond with a knife. If you time this correctly, however, and open with boilerplate with the intention to follow up with a knife, he isn't prepared. He is a reactive debater (ie. Kennedy on guns, Romney was prepared for it and took him to task). They key the Obama staff has figured out is that they have to open by giving him nothing that merits a reaction, because he is much weaker in the follow-up back & forth round, and his personal body language and tics come out significantly more.

    I believe now that they see the opening, they will follow it in debate 3. Example: Libya. The President opens the same way, saying he'll take responsibility. Romney opens with his lines, probably trying to retroactively correct Crowley. Then, and only then, does Obama hit him with Issa's document dump putting people in jeopardy, the Republican party's adamant politicization of everything, maybe even the Allen memo to his employees. Essentially, using two minutes of rebuttal space to hit Romney not just with the substance, but with the broader theme of a party that holds nothing sacred. And they will throw this into the moderator's discussion time, which Romney still does not understand is not the same format as the opening gambits or, at the least, is still not as comfortable in.

    The Romney team, I assume, has seen this issue and is trying to correct it. But it's a bit harder, because I think it's an innate thing, like Romney stuttering over his n's. He believes the the debate works like Person A speaks, Person B speaks, Person A speaks, Person B Speakers. The Obama team has figured out however, that the format works Person A speaks, Person B Speaks, Person A & Person B speak, and by back-loading the substance, forced Romney into a listening position for much of the second half of the confrontation.

    Again, by the time of the third debate, the stagecraft and performance surprises are largely behind us, and the answers on substance matter all the more. But stagecraft, strategy, and presentation still make a difference, and this note offers one more thing to think about tonight and talk about tomorrow. (Then, starting at 10:30pm EDT, I'll skip the-post debate chatter and switch channels to watch the Giants win.)

  • The Last Debate: What the Candidates Should Be Asked

    A wish-list for Bob Schieffer

    In rounds One and Two of the presidential debates, more attention was on how Mitt Romney and Barack Obama presented themselves than on the specific policy points they were trying to make. You might say that a focus on atmospherics and performance is shallow-minded or willed by a politically obsessed press. I'd reply that for better or worse it is the way these encounters have always worked. Anything we don't already know about a tax plan or foreign-policy decision we're unlikely to learn during a debate. What we do have in these encounters is a chance to see how two candidates deal with each other, and with real-time pressure, and with sometimes unexpected questions or challenges.

    Often third debates are less revealing on these personal-dynamics fronts, because each candidates has become familiar with the opponent's moves and the format as a whole. Sometimes actual points of policy force their way into our consciousness! Toward that end, a friend with a long career as a scholar of and participant in national politics sends this wish-list for the themes the candidates should be made to discuss. He writes:

     I wish you or your colleagues would convince Bob Schieffer to add defense topics to his announced list for the Monday debate.

    Here's the list of broad topics issued by Schieffer:
    • America's role in the world
    • Our longest war -- Afghanistan and Pakistan
    • Red lines -- Israel and Iran
    • The changing Middle East and the new face of terrorism -- I
    • The changing Middle East and the new face of terrorism -- II
    • The rise of China and tomorrow's world
    What's missing? Big stuff.
    No questions on the Pentagon or defense spending -- a clear point of difference between the candidates.
    No questions on the criteria for the use of force, whether in Iran or Syria or ... Mexico.
    No questions on the war powers of the President, either regarding Iran or drones or targeted killings.
    No questions on civil-military relations.

    Maybe Schieffer will shoehorn some of these issues into his announced topics, or maybe the candidates will broaden their answers. I hope so. Otherwise, this will be a truncated and woefully inadequate one.

    In a similar vein, William Astore, a retired Air Force officer who now teaches history, explains what he wishes the candidates would address:

    Here's something I'd like to see this campaign season: our two major party candidates debating our wars rather than ignoring them. Both President Obama and Governor Romney prefer to praise the troops rather than to address the tragic consequences of continuing military action in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The latter, when they're addressed at all, are reduced to sound bites and homilies about the need to "stay the course" and "support our troops."

    Praising our military while ignoring the wars we send them to is perhaps the biggest shame of American political discourse today (and that is indeed saying a lot). 

    I'm not sure this is the biggest shame -- the absence of climate change from this "choosing our future" discussion is certainly a contender. But the problem Astore writes about is real. Dear Bob Schieffer: I know you'll prepare seriously for this discussion. But give a look to these suggestions as you do so.

  • The Picture That Encapsulates the Debate

    The first debate left us with an image of Obama scowling. This one, with a very different image of Romney.

    As a bonus two-point update (from inside a car! in China! an unfortunate first -- but at least I'm not driving) of the two earlier debate points:

    1) The Obama team had clearly thought about one long-term tic in Mitt Romney's debate demeanor: His apparently uncontrollable vulnerability to being flustered if he thinks the "rules" are not being enforced. "I'm speaking ... it's my turn." Thus pictures like this, with Romney in a "teacher! teacher!" mode. This is the counterpart to the iconic picture of the first debate, which was Obama looking downcast and downward with a scowl. If I had more time I'd dig up one of those pics.

    Getty Images

    2) To spell it out, I agree with my Atlantic colleagues Ta-Nehisi Coates and also Robert Wright on the general flow of this one, and I disagree with our National Journal colleague Ron Fournier, who considered it a no-winner squabble that left everyone worse off. Certainly there were pitched disagreements -- but to me they did not amount to squabbling but rather to the expression of actual differences in outlook, on issues from Libya to taxes. Unfortunately not on the automatic-weapons question, but that's for another day.

    Update On reflection I think that the most important words in the debate, a kind of turning point, were "Please proceed, Governor." Explanation later; if you saw it, you'll know what I'm talking about. Clip is in previous post, and the crucial part starts about one minute in.
  • 2 Points on the Second Debate

    Obama and Romney both show us different things from the first time around.

    Which I didn't watch in laboratory isolation as I did the first time but with background commentary via The Twitter (via a VPN to get around the Great Firewall).

    1) Obama was as strong and "on" tonight as he was weak and flat the first time.

    2) In debate #1, Romney illustrated one of the main points about his debate performance: how good he can be when prepared. In debate #2, he illustrated the other: that he can be rattled, off-message, and error-prone when caught in a surprise move. As witness this:

    Details for later examination: Obama's use of the 47 percent in his closing comments (when Romney couldn't answer it -- but after Romney had opened the topic by saying he was for 100 percent of the public); Romney's answer or non-answer about the math of his tax proposals; the line on whose pension plan was bigger; "binders full of women"; immigration; switcheroo tactics on G.W. Bush; and so on.

    Obama showed he could do much better when focused; Romney, that the surprise critique is a challenge for him. That's it for now. Late for another China-factory tour (and the bizarro-world contrast between what you see in these actual factories and how the international flow of jobs is discussed in a debate).

  • VP Debate Morning-After Reaction

    The debate probably didn't move many votes, but it had some interesting implications.

    I said last week that the unimpressive Obama first-debate performance didn't seem any different on a night's reflection than it had while underway.

    For me it's not the same with the VPs. My sense of the sheer political effect of the debate hasn't changed from the real-time impression. I don't think either Joe Biden or Paul Ryan moved many voters from one camp to the other, which is generally the pattern with VP debates. Ryan did enough to reassure his voters; Biden did the more urgently necessary and politically significant job of charging up depressed Democrats. Now it's up to Obama and Romney again.

    But on the fine grain:

    - For years I have been skeptical of whether Paul Ryan's depth on any issue mastered his braniac image in a mainly sympathetic press. I mostly agree with Conor Friedersdorf about the notable things Ryan said, or didn't say, or didn't know about foreign policy. Eg, as Friedersdorf puts it:

    [For the current GOP] geopolitical events unfold according to a simple, predictable model. Do you believe that America is an exceptional nation, that this must be an American century, that Iran cannot get a bomb, and that Israel is our closest ally? If so, everything will work out. It is a testament to the malleability of language that we now call this ideology "conservative."

    - As Charles Pierce argues, it is fair to compare Ryan's foreign-policy sophistication to Sarah Palin's. We can ask why she was mocked for her "I can see Russia" line and he has not been for comparably bald statements about Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and Russia, or the practically unmentioned China.

    - I agree with Michael Tomasky that the debate format could use another look. Martha Raddatz was overall very admirable, but her final question was Oprahesque: "If you are elected, what could you both give to this country as a man, as a human being, that no one else could?" That is fine for Oprah, but this was not the Oprah show (and is not the way Raddatz spent the first half of the debate). Both Ryan and Biden quickly figured out that the only appropriate response to this opening was standard "eager to serve" blather.

    Another of her closing questions was about the the candidates' personal religious views, as two Catholics. In practice, Biden made the most of this opportunity, by reaffirming the bedrock founding-of-America principle that we must recognize the distinction between personal religious convictions and public-policy views. But I thought the question itself was based on a premise that both candidates should have challenged: that it was in any way appropriate to grill them during an election on matters of personal faith. I know, you can't please everybody -- but it was almost as if a previous Catholic candidate for national office had never addressed this issue. (See also Ed Kilgore on this point.) Here is Raddatz's question:

    We have two Catholic candidates, first time, on a stage such as this. And I would like to ask you both to tell me what role your religion has played in your own personal views on abortion.

    Please talk about how you came to that decision. Talk about how your religion played a part in that. And, please, this is such an emotional issue for so many people in this country...

    RYAN: Sure.

    RADDATZ: ... please talk personally about this, if you could.

    Here is what another Catholic candidate said 52 years ago:

    I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

    I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

    I have received a bunch of mail from readers who say that they're still undecided -- but shouldn't be mocked in the way SNL so memorably did. Will get to that in a while.

  • Your VP Debate Summary: Ryan Did Well, Biden Did Better

    Both men did fine; Biden did more than that.

    Still haven't looked at The Twitter or any web sites, though I did watch this with friends, so I don't know how this comports with the prevailing view. But for me the points are:

    • Vice presidential debates have never determined election outcomes, and this one won't.
    • I expected both candidates to do well, and they did.
    • But Paul Ryan, who was fine, did not advance his team's prospects beyond what Mitt Romney had done last week. Whereas Joe Biden, who put on the best performance of his long career, supplied the only good news his team has had in six days (since last Friday's jobs report). Even though, yes, he could have smiled less. Obama owes him, BFD-style.

    By virtue of his position and his personality, Barack Obama cannot comport himself in the next debates the way Biden did this evening. But Obama sure as hell should be studying the detailed defense Biden offered of the administration's record and plans, his willingness to go right at the other side's policies, and his overall "Game On!" attitude from the first second he began to speak. Seriously, Biden himself and whoever helped prepare him for this evening should be feeling very good about what they did. (As Romney and his team did a week ago.)

    I still don't know who our nation's "undecided" voters can be. What more are they waiting to find out? What mattered in this debate was, really, each candidate supplying specific talking points and general morale-support for his side. Obama really needed Biden to do that, and he came through.

    There are some more curlicues for tomorrow, including about the goods and bads of the moderator's style, but for now those are the main points to me.

  • Your VP-Debate Prep Sheet, Page 2: 'Romney = Bush'

    Is the president too 'prissy' to make this simple argument?

    A little while ago I posted a debate-prep sheet for Joe Biden, suggested by someone who hopes that he wins tonight's debate and that his ticket wins next month's election.

    Here's a contrary, Plan B set of suggestions, from a former Republican political staffer who now lives in the swing state of Wisconsin. Compare and contrast (emphasis added):

    Your debate prep sheet, frankly, sounds like one you would use if you were debating Paul Ryan. [Hey, remember, it's from someone else, not me.] It wouldn't be the best one for you, and it isn't for Biden, either.

    Voters' eyes glaze over at references to Washington think tanks and which ideas were bipartisan 20 years ago.  If references to the Clinton years were a knockout punch for Democrats, the whole GOP would be knocked out by now.  He just wasn't as popular as Democratic political types remember.

    BushGE.pngLook.  Barack Obama got elected because, and only because, George W. Bush was such a disaster as President.  Mitt Romney has adopted, point for point, the entire platform Bush ran on in 2004, and that John McCain inherited from Bush in 2008.  Romney never challenged Bush on anything; neither did Ryan, and Ryan has, along with every Republican in Congress, fought Obama on everything he's tried to do to help millions of Americans blasted by the worst recession in 80 years.  The only alternative they offered was tax cuts for their party's largest campaign contributors and, this year, tax cuts for their own candidate.

    The recession was Bush's fault.  Iraq was Bush's fault.  Katrina was Bush's fault.  Romney and Ryan are both Bush Republicans, neither one of them having done any reflection or reassessment of the disaster the last Republican President inflicted on the country.  Romney = Bush.

    I have never understood Barack Obama's prissy avoidance of that equation.  Right now, when the Democrats could still lose the election, would be a good time to leave prissy behind.  Bush was and remains very unpopular.  So is the Republican brand, largely because of Bush.  For good measure, so is Congress, in which Ryan serves.  You want to leave all those weapons unfired because you think it matters to voters that the Heritage Foundation once talked about health care mandates?

    Obama, a product on his class, thinks very highly of himself.  He probably thinks he is President because voters in 2008 shared that high opinion, but all that happened for years ago was that Obama was given the benefit of the doubt by a country badly soured on George Bush and his party.  If Romney represented the kind of distancing from Bush that Ronald Reagan did in 1980 from Richard Nixon and Watergate, equating the GOP ticket with Bush's administration wouldn't work.  Romney doesn't.  This line of attack will work.

    If Democrats have to work in a reference to Bill Clinton to keep the old goat from losing it on some talk show, maybe Biden can say the last Democratic President is out there campaigning for Obama.  Where is George Bush?
  • Your VP-Debate Prep Sheet: Follow Along at Home

    A check list for the points made, and missed, tonight.

    I had all sorts of rococo viewer's-guide suggestions before the initial Obama-Romney debate last week. Obama is a great orator but only a so-so debater; Romney a so-so orator at best but often a very strong debater; yet Romney is vulnerable to gaffes when taken by surprise; and yet some other things. You can read it for yourself.

    I will be really interested to see Joe Biden and Paul Ryan tonight, but my expectations are much simpler: I think they'll both do a good job. They know each other, they both like mixing it up, each has experience talking himself into a corner and (more or less) out again. It should be entertaining. That's as much twelve-dimensional-chess pre-game insight as you'll get from me.

    On the other hand, a reader in Florida who has spent a lot of time thinking and writing about rhetoric sends in this tip-sheet on what Joe Biden needs to do, in the wake of Obama's showing last week. You can print this out for quick guidance while watching tonight -- "print it out" being a quaint anachronism that includes just keeping it open a browser window -- and then tick the points off if Biden makes them. I figure that after last week's debate the GOP side doesn't need any tips.

    BidenOnion.jpgI have three major thoughts [for Biden] on the upcoming VP debate:

    1) Viewers absolutely need to hear the jobs numbers that are shown graphically on the Obama campaign's private-sector jobs chart. VP Biden simply needs to say: "The day Obama was inaugurated, we were losing more than 800,000 private-sector jobs a month. Two months after the stimulus was passed (with ZERO Republican votes), the private-sector job losses were less than half that number.  And after only one year in office, with no help at all from Republicans in Congress, we had totally reversed the private-sector job-loss trend, created positive private-sector job growth and have continued that trend right through this latest jobs report. Our policies ARE working, and we will fully restore the American economy in a second term whether Congressional Republicans help us or not!

    Thumbnail image for PaulRyanbeefcake.jpg2) VP Biden should also remind voter REPEATEDLY that the unemployment rate would have been 1% or more lower if the President had gotten his requests for public-sector funding approved. Why is this so relevant? Because in every recession for the last several decades (note: fact check needed), public-sector spending ROSE under Republican presidents, as a logical economic response to a recession.
    • Implication: Republicans believe that spending on public-sector hiring is good when a Republican is president, but bad when it's a Democratic president- pure politics again.
    • Implication: this recession could have been far milder, and the job losses far milder if Republicans had agreed to the same measures that they use when Republican presidents are in office.
    3) VP Biden should use any reference to Obamacare to REPEATEDLY note that: a) the basic idea was created by the Heritage Foundation, conservative bastion, in the early 1990s as a response to Hillary Clinton's single-payer efforts; b) that Romney's and Obama's legislation followed the Heritage formula; c) Republican senators who served between 1992-2010 (with Biden) supported this legislation when it was a Republican idea, and then unanimously rejected it when it was a Democratic president; and d) its Heritage pedigree and Obama's adoption make it an inherently bi-partisan bill. President Obama IS bi-partisan- with the real Republican Party that Joe Biden knew when Bill Clinton was president; not the extremist Republican Party that compromises on nothing and cannot act in a bi-partisan fashion.
    • Implication: Obamacare was a conservative idea, and the Congressional Republicans simply became hyper-partisan and sacrificed governing for politics.
    • Implication: Biden saw the transformation of a centrist Republican Party into an extremist faction.
    • Implication: When the Republican Party actually governed, instead of obstructed, the country did well (Clinton economy)....
    I believe that these talking points, hammered over and over, favor Joe Biden's style.

    Last week, I watched in laboratory-isolation conditions: no Twitter feed, no email, no Internet, no commentary, just the debate stream. Tonight my wife and I will be watching with politically interested friends, and I'll weigh in tomorrow.

    And, if you'd like a different kind of guide, I turn you over to our friends from Taiwan at NMA. Yes, you could criticize this video for various sorts of "false equivalence." But parts of it are pretty funny.

  • The Line I Was Sure President Obama Was Going to Use

    "There you go again," "it takes a lot of brass," and other lines unspoken

    Your post-debate list of talking points, complete with historic videos:

    • During the debate and immediately afterwards, I felt, along with most people, that Mitt Romney had performed very well, and Barack Obama quite poorly. The wisdom that comes from a full 16+ hours of perspective does not change that view.
    • Everyone is offering explanations for what happened to Obama. Among many others, two worth checking on our site are from Garance Franke-Ruta and Derek Thompson.
    • The award for most disgraceful debate interpretation goes to a perennial favorite in this category, John Sununu, who told Andrea Mitchell that Obama had done poorly because he was "lazy."
    • The iron law of political coverage is "the story has to change." For several weeks the story had been: Romney gaffes, widening Obama lead. It was going to change one way or another last night. A bad Romney night might have led to a "time for a landslide!" tone. Now it's "Obama shocked, new spring in Romney's step."
    • The story will change again. Already we're getting the "hey, don't go overboard on the Romney Knockout" theme. If the Obama team is lucky or successful, the next story will be: Pyrrhic victory for Romney, as many of his claims last night get picked apart. If Romney is lucky, the story will remain: Obama on the slippery slope toward defeat. And of course tomorrow's job numbers will be worked into either theme. 
    • A lot of what Romney said cried out for real-time challenge, follow-up, or "wait a minute!" rebuttal. I am not at all in the "it was Jim Lehrer's fault" camp, because I respect Lehrer's decision not to assign himself follow-up interrogator duties. He was there to let the principals interact, and that is what he did. An incumbent president should have been fully prepared to handle the follow-up chores.
    • Learning from the past, 1980 edition: The first time I heard Mitt Romney make the "he's going to cut $716 billion out of Medicare" claim last night, I mouthed the response I assumed the President was going to give: "There you go again." Surely they had this one ready. Right? Right? Lest we forget:

    • Learning from the past, last month edition: Here is another way to handle that $716 billion claim. Every single line of this was available to the Obama prep team. Lest we forget this one too:

    Here endeth my debate analysis for a while.

  • Your One-Stop Debate Rorschach Test

    One nation, divisible.

    From Patrick Conway, who was part of a team responsible for last year's marvelous "Young Conservative's Hip Hop Guide to Muslims" video, just now we have a psychographic guide to debate reactions in liberal and conservative households. The first twenty seconds give you the idea; I found the whole thing funny and worthwhile.

    And in case you didn't see the "Hip Hop Guide to Muslims" last year, it's worth checking out now.

  • Debate 'Cold' Reaction: Yes, Romney Can Debate

    Romney is a bad campaigner but a good debater. Obama, vice versa. That is what we have just seen.

    I argued in my Atlantic story last month that Mitt Romney was better at debating than he was at any other aspect of campaigning, and that Barack Obama, famed and redoubtable orator, was worse.

    Anyone feel like disagreeing with that, after the past 90 minutes?

    I am not talking about whether I agree with the two candidates' positions. Obviously I agree more with Obama, and I believe that more of his facts and assertions are "true." I am talking about crispness in presenting positions within the constraints of this particular format, and the air of overall ease in the encounter.

    If you had the sound turned off, Romney looked calm and affable through more of the debate than Obama did, and the incumbent president more often looked peeved. Romney's default expression, whether genuine or forced, was a kind of smile; Obama's, a kind of scowl. I can understand why Obama would feel exasperated by these claims and arguments. Every president is exasperated by what he considers facile claims about what he knows to be impossibly knotty problems. But he let it show.

    It's a good thing for Barack Obama that there are a couple more debates ahead.

    Maybe in prep sessions for the next ones they'll give him a comeback to Mitt Romney's multiply repeated "cut $716 billion from Medicare" line, which is that the Ryan/Romney plan CUTS THOSE $716 BILLION AND MORE. (Why, exactly, did we not hear that from Obama each time Romney used the number?)

    It's also good for Obama that "normal" people were probably tuning out halfway through.

    In my article I also argued that challengers predictably "exceeded expectations" and seemed to score points in their initial debate with an incumbent president. Moreover, they were elevated simply by being matched on equal footing with the president. Anyone want to disagree with that?

    Find some GIFs of the debate -- as I am sure The Atlantic Wire's Elspeth Reeve will do -- and test  them against this account from my article about the primaries:

    Civics teachers won't want to hear this, but the easiest way to judge "victory" in many debates is to watch with the sound turned off, so you can assess the candidates' ease, tenseness, humor, and other traits signaled by their body language. By this standard, Ron Paul, with his chronically ill-fitting suits, often looked cranky; Rick Santorum often looked angry; Rick Perry initially looked pole­axed and confused; Jon Huntsman looked nervous; Newt Ging­rich looked overexcited--and so on through the list until we reach Mitt Romney, who almost always looked at ease. (As did Herman Cain, illustrating that body language is not everything.) Romney looked like the grown-up--the winner, the obvious candidate--with or without sound.

    Again, I don't think this first debate is likely to change a huge number of votes. But from my own parochial perspective, I do feel better about my assessment. And I know what the next stage in campaign narrative -- "Romney comeback!" -- is going to be. Perhaps also this will give more leverage to Obama associates to sit him down and say: Look, you can be beat.

    I've written this without seeing anyone else's liveblog, or Twitter feed, or TV commentary. Now I'll check the Internet and see what I've gotten wrong.

  • Debate Housekeeping Note: Watching It 'Cold'

    A modern experiment: watching a debate without commentary!

    I believe that some of my Atlantic colleagues will be weighing in with real-time color commentary on the debate. I look forward to seeing what they say -- about two hours from now.

    As a scientific experiment, or something, I'm just going to watch the session straight, as in Ye Olden Days if they had C-SPAN back then. I'll stay off Twitter feeds or live blogs or The Entire Internet, as if I were blocking out knowledge of Olympic results from London -- and turn off the TV as soon as the candidates are done. Then I'll try to file a "here's how it seemed to me" dispatch without checking everyone else's notes. 

    And then I'll check to see what I got wrong.

    I am viewing this from Houston, where I have arrived for a big China event tomorrow night with the Center for Houston's Future. I appear to be the only person at the Houston convention-center Hilton who is not part of the 10,000-strong (actual number, not "zillions"-style estimate) contingent for the World Starbuck's Conference that begins here tomorrow. I will hope for good coffee in the morning.

    Let the games begin.
    * Update: No C-SPAN in the hotel, so going with CNN. Impressively, hotel lobby has Fox on one big screen, and MSNBC on another. FWIW.


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