Why Obama lost the debate
This is a lightly edited version of my radio commentary from today’s show.
First, I should say that while I am not a Democrat, and never had much hope invested in 2008’s candidate of hope, I do think we’d be marginally better off if Obama won. One reason we’d be better off is that when a Democrat is in power, it’s easier to see that the problems with our politics—the dominance of money and state violence—are systemic issues, and not a matter of individuals or parties. That’s not to say there are no differences between the two major parties. The Republicans are a gang of terrifying reactionaries, which flatters the gaggle of wobbly centrists that make up the other party. But the Dems have some serious foundational problems that help explain what is almost universally regarded as Obama’s dismal performance in the first debate.
First, Obama’s personality. In an earlier life, I spent a lot of time studying the psychoanalytic literature on narcissism. It was all part of a study of canonical American poetry, where I thought that the imperial grandiosity of the American imaginary could be illuminated by examining its underlying narcissism. But all that is by way of saying I’m not using this term recklessly. I think there’s a lot of the narcissist about Obama. There’s something chilly and empty about him. Unlike Bill Clinton, he doesn’t revel in human company. It makes him uncomfortable. He wants the rich and powerful to love him, but doesn’t care about the masses (unless they’re a remote but adoring crowd). Many people seem to bore him. It shows.
And the charms of the narcissist wear badly over time. All the marvelous things his fans projected on him in 2008 have faded. He’s no longer the man of their fantasies. And that shows too.
Which is not unrelated to a more political problem. Unlike Franklin Roosevelt, who famously said that he welcomed the hatred of the rich, Obama wants to flatter them. He made the mistake of calling them “fatcats” once, so his former fans on Wall Street turned on him. That has something to do with why he didn’t mention the 47% thing, or tar Romney as the candidate of the 0.1%. That would be divisive and offend the people whose admiration he craves. FDR came out of the aristocracy, and had the confidence to step on the fancy toes of the rich now and then. Obama came out of nowhere, was groomed for success by elite institutions throughout his impressive rise, and no doubt wants some of those nice shoes for himself.
More broadly, the political problem of the Democrats is that they’re a party of capital that has to pretend for electoral reasons sometimes that it’s not. All the complaints that liberals have about them—their weakness, tendency to compromise, the constantly lamented lack of a spine—emerge from this central contradiction. The Republicans have a coherent philosophy and use it to fire up a rabid base. The Dems are afraid of their base because it might cause them trouble with their funders.
What do liberals stand for these days? Damned if I know. It’s not a philosophy you can express in aphorisms. (Yeah, politics are complex, and slogans are simple, but if you’ve got a passionately held set of beliefs you can manage that contradiction.) Too many qualifications and contradictions. They can’t just say less war and more equality, because they like some wars and want to bore you with just war theory to explain the morality of drone attacks, and worry about optimal tax rates and incentives. Join an empty philosophy to an empty personality and you get a very flat and meandering performance in debate.
Romney believes in money. Obama believes in nothing.
Most liberals want to write off Obama’s bad performance as a bad night. It’s not just that. It’s a structural problem.