Debate #1: A radical counter-narrative

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Debate #1: A radical counter-narrative
Debate #1: A radical counter-narrative
(AP Photo/The Denver Post, John Leyba)

Ready for a counter-narrative about President Obama’s universally panned performance in the first debate? In her article, “Was Debate #1 a Pyrrhic Victory?“ Robin Lakoff, professor of linguistics at the University of California- Berkeley, offers this radically different analysis as to what President Obama was really up to last Wednesday.

He didn’t lose; he failed to win in the short term. So in the next two presidential debates, he will be the underdog. Romney, going in as the favorite, will have to produce performances that are not only as good as his first, but better (since the excellent “new Romney” is the new old Romney). And if in either debate the President pulls off the gloves and plays to win, he will score much higher than if he had raised expectations in the first debate. And the closer a debate is to the election, the more of an effect it is apt to have (if in fact debate performance, except of the most extreme kind, ever has any effect at all).

Furthermore, the narrative-spinners now have their desired narrative arc wrapped up and ready to go. Today’s message: Romney’s the one. But by October 17th (or October 23rd) that could undergo a satisfactorily surprising metamorphosis to: It was the President all along (as we’ve been telling you). The narrators will look smart. This will make them feel good. That in turn will create in them goodwill toward the candidate, which can’t hurt his chances.

The President’s joke is on those analysts who see debates as decontextualized, not as part of a stream of pre-election events: the speeches, the conventions, the zingers, the gaffes….each of which, obviously or not, lends meaning to everything that precedes or follows. Romney’s “47%” gaffe continues to echo because it fits into a context created by Ann’s Cadillacs and Mitt’s $10,000 bet. Obama’s misstatements fade away fast because they don’t fit into any such prevailing narrative. Likewise, this debate will acquire meaning only as the first of three, and the one furthest from the end-game, and will have persuasive effect only as a point of comparison with what comes later. In this way, when the game is over, Obama’s performance in Debate 1 may very well be seen as the turning point today’s pundits are calling it – only it will be seen then as the turning point that Obama’s brilliant strategists created to make his victory inevitable.

So, liberal wishful thinking or one of the most elaborate set-up jobs in American political history? (The latter idea is catching on, BTW) As Lakoff herself points out, context is everything.

Debate #1: A radical counter-narrative

Updated