- By Peter FeaverPeter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is coeditor of Shadow Government.
Like everyone else, I thought Governor Romney helped himself last night. I won’t dwell on my reactions because the debate focused on topics far removed from Shadow Govt’s ballpark, though both candidates did make a passing reference to foreign policy. Doubtless the Shadow Govt. team will have more to say when the ball moves into our court with the October 22 foreign policy debate.
However, I can’t resist making two observations that I haven’t seen get much emphasis in the commentary I have read thus far:
1. Obama talked the longest but Romney said the most. I was watching on MSNBC (I wanted to get a sense of what my Duke colleagues were thinking to gird myself for the inevitable hallway ambushes) and their pundits all seemed to think that Romney had run roughshod over the moderator and, in Rachel Maddow’s words, won on "time of possession." That struck me as odd, because my sense was that Obama had droned on longer than Romney. It turns out I was right, according to CNN’s clock,which had Obama speaking for 42 minutes and 50 seconds while Romney spoke for only 38 minutes and 32 seconds. It felt like Romney was more efficient with airtime — alternating between rapid-fire statistics and repetition of key points — whereas Obama meandered and often seemed at a loss for words, maybe even at a loss for thoughts. There is no question Romney was more commanding — more sure of himself and more sure of the facts — but he was not commanding the clock.
(2) Obama seemed like he had something bigger on his mind than the debate. In part because the president came off as distracted, I began to wonder what was distracting him. There have been many hypotheses advanced: maybe he was distracted by actually getting challenged, given how gentle the press usually treats him; maybe he needs his teleprompter to help him; and so on. Perhaps because of the bias of my interest in foreign policy, I wondered whether he had just had a very troubling intelligence briefing. I imagined him standing there and thinking about this briefing about some horrible pending threat and then having to overcome that distraction to focus again on, what was it, oh yes, my $716 billion worth of cuts to Medicare. Of course, there is no evidence for my hypothesis beyond Obama’s halting performance, but an enterprising reporter might want to dig in that direction a bit.