The first Obama-Romney debate is over, and has been followed by predictable torrents of over-dissection and over-analysis. So, why add more? Because reactions in Israel may be surprisingly instructive in projecting the likely impact of this debate on the coming election. Americans in Israel, as well as native-Israelis, make for an interesting group with which to measure the effect of the debate, especially on the impression made by Governor Romney.
That is, paradoxically, precisely because Israel-based viewers are less engaged in details of this campaign than voters in America. They are, therefore, arguably a better reflection of the less-engaged and still-undecided voters in America than the hardened political junkies whose impressions of the candidates were formed long ago. As a result, the reactions of viewers here likely reflect the impressions formed primarily by the debate performances, as opposed to pre-existing impressions.
This is not to suggest that Israel-based viewers are disengaged; on the contrary, Israelis are famously omnivorous consumers of news. But viewers and voters in Israel are not as widely exposed to the presidential campaign as those in America, where the campaign is omnipresent. In fact, in spite of his visit to Israel this summer, Mitt Romney is still not well-known to the Israeli public: coverage of the man and his campaign has been doubly-filtered–first, by American media editing, and then by Israeli media largely reporting second-hand on what they see from American news. In addition, the Israeli public is, thankfully, not inundated with commercials and billboards from the respective campaigns and independent political action committees. (It seems we in Israel will have that pleasure this coming February.)
Last night, viewers finally got to see a lot of Romney for themselves, unfiltered by any other media. My highly unscientific survey of reactions from Israeli viewers indicates that the vast majority of those viewers were pleasantly surprised.
So much political spin had previously caricatured Romney as a stiff, uncaring, plastic, gaffe-prone, extremist, out-of-touch, scary, patrician robber-baron–and the Israeli press uncritically endorsed that spin for the most part. But last night, viewers saw the man spin-free, and saw with their own eyes a man of confidence, intelligence, substance, moderation, precision, enthusiasm, grace, understanding, and a command of issues that outshone that of President Obama. He came across as a good executive. He seemed…well, presidential.
And if Romney seemed presidential to so many in Israel who were not previously immersed in this campaign, there’s a good chance that he made the same kind of impression on less-immersed, undecided voters in America.
I know enough not to make too much of one debate out of a series of three. This is hardly the first time that a challenger has surprised or outshone the incumbent President in a first debate. And President Obama is certainly a skilled performer who is unlikely to appear again as deflated or unprepared as he seemed last night, when it looked like he was just mailing it in. After all, even Walter Mondale outperformed President Reagan in their first 1984 debate, only to have Reagan return to form and go on to win 49 states.
But this feels different. This was a remarkably substantive, freewheeling debate, not just 60-second sound-bites and talking points. Romney was in command from start to finish. Even if Obama had an off night, Romney, with this one performance, erased the image that had been cultivated by the media. All the king’s newscasters and all the king’s late-night comedians cannot easily put that caricature together again–at least not one that will have the much credibility with voters.
It has been said of the undecided American voters that “they want to fire Obama, but aren’t sure they want to hire Romney.” And while American voters in Israel really want to fire Obama, many had not yet gotten used to the idea of hiring Romney–keep in mind, about half the Americans in Israel are (well, were) Democrats. Last night went a long away toward changing that. Romney’s performance should make those on the fence–in Israel and America–quite comfortable with the thought of hiring him as President.
Abe Katsman is an American attorney and political commentator living in Jerusalem. He serves as Counsel to Republicans Abroad Israel.