The challenger versus the Commander-in-Chief

An amazing thing happened in the course of three presidential debates.

The president became the challenger and the challenger became the Commander-in Chief.

If you turn down the sound and just watch the body language in the third debate, it is clear Romney has become the calm, authoritative leader and Obama has become the aggressive, intense challenger.

This is a remarkable turn of events.

People who score these events as debates miss the far larger drama which surrounds them.

Mike Deaver, President Ronald Reagan’s communications adviser, used to watch events with the sound off. Television, he asserted, was 85 percent visual, 10 percent tone of voice, and only 5 percent what you actually say.

Reagan and Romney had a similar challenge in taking on an incumbent president with a weak record.  Many people wanted a change but they felt a president is so central to our national survival that they needed reassurance that the challenger would be calm and stable.

Both Reagan and Romney had reassurance, a focus on peace not war, and a tone of stable competence as a major goal in their debates.

David Gergen captured Romney’s achievement in the third debate when he said Romney had passed the Commander-in-Chief test.  People left the debate feeling Romney was capable of dealing with global realities and with regional complexities.

Some partisans wanted Romney to be more aggressive, but that would have violated his strategic goal.

It is very important in settings like a presidential debate to remember why you are there and what you are trying to accomplish.

These are not college debate sessions with points scored by debate judges based on debate criterion.

These are political events designed to gain votes.

Romney had done so well in the first two debates that he entered the third debate with a very specific goal.

Romney had already built a huge lead among men — the elite media seldom note Obama’s huge gender gap among men but it is enormous. Romney has also rallied conservatives and Republican partisans.

These are the groups that like arguments and he already had their support.

The Romney challenge in the third debate was to appeal to women and to moderate independents.  Both dislike confrontation.  Both dislike negativity and hostility.

It is clear Obama’s polling showed him losing ground going into the third debate. As a result, he went into the foreign policy debate overly aggressive and overly hostile.

Obama’s sarcasm about the size of the military was exactly the wrong style for women and independent moderates. His contempt for Romney came through in that answer and contempt is alienating and irritating to women and independent moderates.

It was this difference between debating points and political points that has undercut Obama in both the second and third debates.

After a disastrous performance in the first debate — the worst by an incumbent president in the 62 year history of presidential debates — Obama shifted to a much more aggressive and energetic style for the second and third debates.

Americans have been trained by American Idol, Dancing with the Stars and other TV shows to judge performances. They have also learned to distinguish important nuances.

In both the second and third debate Americans said Obama was a better performer. Yet in both debates people said they were more likely to vote for Romney as a result of the debate.

It is this difference between style and substance, between performance and politics that has kept Obama off balance and allowed Romney to build momentum.