Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

06 October 2012

Why the Debate Flub?


After three days of jeering by Republicans and lamentation by Democrats, it’s time to ask a simple question. What accounts for the President’s abysmal performance in the debate Wednesday night?

Sometimes Occam’s Razor shaves well: the simplest explanation is the best. The President looked and acted exhausted, as if someone had pulled a plug and drained all his body fluids. Maybe he was.

What could have caused that exhaustion? Four over four years, including the grueling 2008 primary campaign, he has shown extraordinary stamina and resilience, far above the average even for seasoned pols. So what happened on Wednesday?

The most obvious answer is that the President, in addition to debating, had been doing his job.

After the debate, my wife and I speculated that some unanticipated foreign event had distracted the President’s attention and made him lose sleep. Two candidates for such an event are now apparent. The first was the exchange of mortar fire between Turkish and Syrian military forces near a border town. The second was the mass protest by Iranian merchants in Tehran over Iran’s inflation and declining currency.

Both were important events. The Turkish-Syrian mortar exchange raised the prospect of greater Turkish involvement on the side of Syrian rebels. At the same time, it threatened widening the Syrian civil war into a regional conflict.

The merchants’ protest in Iran was even more important. That was the first time that Iranian merchants—as distinguished from students, intellectuals, and opposition figures—had staged public protests. It showed that economic sanctions on Iran are working, as Israeli officials acknowledged yesterday. It therefore reduced the threat of an Israeli air strike on Iran and increased the chances of solving the standoff over Iran’s nuclear programs peacefully. That, in turn, offered a chance to avoid a Straits of Hormuz closure and a second Great Depression.

Both of these events were reported Wednesday, in mid- to late-afternoon, Mountain Time. The time difference to the Middle East is at least eight hours. So the President’s national-security apparatus probably gave him word early Wednesday morning, maybe in the wee hours.

The President is not an aging figurehead who nods off in Cabinet meetings like Ronald Reagan. He’s a hands-on guy. Although he could have delegated our national response to these two important events, chances are he didn’t. Chances are he spent at least some time on the phone to foreign leaders, finding out what was known and giving advice. Chances are these two events—especially the protest in Iran—occupied his attention and his energy at a crucial time just before the debate.

Above all, the President is a conscientious and modest man. If the burdens of his office exhausted him, he probably would not want to trumpet it. He would think he was just doing his job, and that being a superman is part of it. But the public would deserve to know that he was handling the people’s business, not losing his grip.

There is also a third possible explanation. Did someone forget that Denver is the Mile-High City?

As a season subscriber to the Santa Fe Opera, I have watched young and vigorous opera stars struggle to maintain their singing power—and sometimes their breath—at altitude. Response to altitude is an individual thing, independent of age and physical condition. Some great athletes wilt; some ordinary slobs do fine. But everyone who doesn’t live at altitude needs at least a day or two to acclimatize.

Mitt was in Denver by October 1, two days prior. Obama was in Henderson, Nevada (near Las Vegas) until the day before. Henderson is half a mile lower than Denver. Did that make a difference? Only the candidates and their medical teams know for sure.

Most airplane crashes have multiple causes, not just one. Likely, a combination of these factors explains the President’s poor showing Wednesday.

What are lessons for the future? Probably the most important is what I used to tell my law students. Most law students (and lawyers) think they are supermen or superwomen. Few take account of their human limitations until they crash. I always tell them that their own human limitations are part of the problems they must solve, and that those who take their own limitations into account usually do best over the long haul.

Maybe henceforth the President should do likewise and prioritize. Maybe he could have delegated responding to this week’s two foreign events, which were important but not urgent. With Joe and Hilary and his superb national-security team on duty, his personal involvement might have waited a day or two. And nothing is more important than making sure Mitt—who has no foreign-policy experience at all and changes his mind every two days—is not the one shaping our foreign policy next January.

If this speculation is correct, should the President or his staff let the word out? That’s a tough call. Even if our presidents are only human, we all expect them to act (or at least seem) like superheroes. Maybe an explanation like this would make the President seem weak. On the other hand, maybe it would reveal the President for what he is: a superbly conscientious public servant for whom personal ambition takes a far back seat to doing his job as best he can.

That decision is one for political consultants. But a very least, the President and his staff should avoid this sort of exhaustion for the next two debates. And they should keep him near sea level when he has to be at his best.

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