John Podhoretz’ Analysis of the Debates
HH: John Podhoretz, welcome. I want you to unleash your inner film critic, J-Pod, and tell us as a film critic if you lined up those four debate, and maybe throw in the President’s convention speech and his Al Smith dinner, did he turn in anything memorable that raises spirits and sets people to marching?
JP: I would say probably not, although I think with the exception of his horrendous performance in the first debate, and a not very good convention speech, he sort of, he and Romney kind of matched themselves punch for punch, or you know, stroke for stroke, or whatever you want to call it. And so you still have this massive advantage if you sort of put everything together of the first debate, which was, you know, probably the most lopsided debate victory of our, you know, ever. And then if you add in sort of Biden and Ryan, I think it’s pretty clear that while Biden was the dominating figure in their debate, that was probably a mild negative when all was said and done. So I think my inner film critic tells me Romney, if Romney becomes president on November 6th, it will have been these performances that will have been the cause of the move that made it possible.
HH: Let me play the two key clips from last night for you, John Podhoretz. Here first is Mitt Romney’s, probably his best moment last night, and maybe of all the debates. Cut number one:
MR: Mr. President, the reason I called it an apology tour is because you went to the Middle East, and you flew to Egypt, and to Saudi Arabia, and to Turkey and Iraq. And by the way, you skipped Israel, our closest friend in the region. But you went to the other nations, and by the way, they noticed that you skipped Israel. And then in those nations, and on Arabic TV, you said that America had been dismissive and derisive. You said that on occasion, America had dictated to other nations. Mr. President, America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators.
HH: John Podhoretz, if the president was ever going to interrupt, he ought to have interrupted that one.
JP: Well, I mean, you know what the Romney campaign thinks of that moment, because they cut a commercial about it almost instantly, suggesting, perhaps, that they planned to do that all along. And I note that it is now, you know, as we’re speaking, we’re in the mid-afternoon the day after, and the Obama campaign has not cut any commercials based on the President’s performance last night. This was also true of the second debate, which a lot of people thought the President won, and Romney got two very, very strong commercials out of it. So the question of what the durable effect of the debates are, you know, we really have no evidence to suggest that the President got much, if anything, from any of them, whereas it’s clear that Romney got stuff from each, not just the first, in the overwhelming victory in the first, but got some stuff that he wanted from each of the successive ones.
HH: In a very bizarre moment last night, John, when our entourage left D.C. and went on a plane out of Dulles, we were standing around in the private hanger, and in comes Ellen Degeneres and Jane from Glee, and they’re all very happy with the debate, and they all think they won, probably because of this moment. I want you to take it apart after I play it for the audience. Here’s the President:
BO: You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military has changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. And so the question is not a game of Battleship where we’re counting ships, it’s what are our capabilities.
HH: Now I don’t know why Ellen and Jane think they won, but I know a lot of lefties thought this was a knockdown blow. What do you think, John?
JP: I think that it was a very good-sounding line as it came out of his mouth. As it came out of his mouth, he then took it and made it a bad line. In other words, when he said horses and bayonets, that’s fine. When he starts in with the notion that you know there are these things called aircraft carriers that airplanes can land on, and we’re not playing Battleship, what he is doing there is suggesting that the person who is about to run against him, who will get more than 60 million American votes, is some kind of a little child on whose head he can put his hand and pat. That is not an appropriate way to talk to the person who is your challenger. You know, it doesn’t make sense, actually, and aside from the fact that his statement, it is astonishing to hear the president of the United States say essentially that our Navy is obsolete, because we don’t need all these boats that we used to have that we need to replace. He knows perfectly well that Defense intellectuals and people who know a lot about this think that we need an entirely newly-crafted Navy, one that can have, you know, in which there will be new ships that can go into shallow water for the force projection of power, because an aircraft carrier is a fantastic thing to project power from the air, but not necessarily if you need to land on shore, which is, for example, something that…that’s why we have Navy SEAL’s, who of course were of such great utility to him in the bin Laden incident. I mean, they’re Navy SEALs. They actually need to get off boats, go into water, and mostly go on land. That’s how they do what they do.
HH: Oh, I’m so glad you brought that up. The very long tail it takes to put a Navy SEAL into Pakistan extends across the globe and through a series of ships, small and large, supply ships and tankers and hospitals. It just, it was so annoying.
JP: And one thing that we know to be the case is that you can’t have a ship in two places at once.
JP: If you have a ship in the Indian Ocean, it cannot simultaneously be in the Pacific Ocean. So if for some reason you need a ship in the Indian Ocean, and you need a ship in the Pacific Ocean in order to counter various threats, and you only have one, you are making a very large choice by only having one.
HH: Amen. Now I want to ask you about, coming up after the break, Jon Chait’s going to join me. His blog today, Romney says he’s winning, it’s a bluff. And he’s trying to write, this is clearly coming out of Chicago, this spin, that the idea of momentum for Romney in the polls is made up. What do you make of that, John?
JP: Well, I mean, it’s preposterous. It’s absolutely preposterous. Everybody knows. Everybody can feel. We are all Americans. We all live in this country, and we all felt at the beginning of October as though if the race continued as it was going that the Romney campaign was going to end up a couple of points behind. That’s how it felt, that’s what it seemed like. There was no push, there was no momentum. Suddenly, he had this massive debate victory. It enlivened his side, it got the base motivated, it got independents to take a second look, all of that. Every survey, I am not an admirer of polls, but when you have 250 polls, all of which show movement toward Romney, all of them, all of them, all of them, you have a fundamental change in the dynamic of the race that Twitter isn’t responsible for, and that moving one guy out of North Carolina isn’t responsible for. None of that is true. And by the way, we saw, last night, we saw in the debate the President strategically throwing Virginia out of his electoral count. That stuff about the Navy was a conscious understanding that because he was not going to win Virginia, he was going to use the Navy attack against Romney to appeal to other people. If he really thought he had a chance in Virginia, he would never have attacked the notion that the Navy should be larger. That is a very important vote number in Southern Virginia. He needs a bit in Southern Virginia to add to his total in Northern Virginia to win. He no longer thinks he’s going to win Virginia. That means that there are at least two states out of his takeaway from McCain in ’08 that are gone for him – Indiana and Virginia. That’s a very serious thing that has happened. Now you know, it doesn’t win Romney the presidency, but you know, it indicates that he is going to have a smaller electoral map than he had in the first…and that, by the way, is a complete change from previous elections when ordinarily a president who wins a second term enlarges his vote and enlarges his electoral count.
HH: As did George W. Bush in 2004. You’re so right about this point, and it’s not just Virginia. It’s everyone who served in the Navy, and it’s everyone a member of their family. And it’s also the other military services, as Tom Cotton is going to say when he comes along at the bottom of the hour. John Podhoretz, keep blogging away, John, always a pleasure from Commentary Magazine. You ought to read Commentary Magazine every day, www.commentarymagazine.com. Follow John on Twitter @johnpodhoretz.
End of interview.