The consensus view going into tonight’s debate was that Mitt Romney needed, if not a knockout win, at least a technical knockout. With the President leading in most of the polls, although probably not by very much, a win on points probably wouldn’t change enough of few remaining undecided voters, nor would it re-energize Romney’s supporters. Obama needed to try to run out the clock, looking Presidential, reminding people of why they elected him in the first place. Given the results of just about every poll of viewers, I think it’s fair to say that Romney achieved that.
His demeanor was that of the Alpha Male: calm, confident, relaxed, explaining without condescending, having mastered not only his own talking points but those of his opponent. Obama reminded me of a fighter who, when he tried to throw punches, did so laboriously and dropped his other hand, leaving himself open far too often.
Obama look ill-at-ease, saying “uh” and “um” far too many times in what should have been well-rehearsed opening remarks. Romney breezed through those, and was prepared for Obama’s claims about the $5 trillion tax cut (if only!), and slyly compared the President to a young boy who repeats the same thing over and over, hoping for his father to accept it as true. Having already established himself as having more rhythm with his punches, rhetorically turning Obama into his son was brilliant. From there on, Obama looked physically smaller on the the screen, his cramped hand gestures emphasizing his own discomfort more than the points hwas failing to make. And when bringing up a list of failed green energy “investments,” he noted that, “Someone told me, you don’t pick winners and losers, you just pick the losers,” scoring a direct hit.
Romney left his own openings, of course, but Obama was never really able to connect. Those of us who picked another candidate in the primaries rightly suspected that Romney’s Achilles Heel was health care reform, and while Obama seemed to recover a little of his game there, he didn’t bring anything new. Romney kept bringing the discussion back to jobs and growth, and Obama really had no answer for that. By the time the debate wound down to the final two questions, Obama looked beaten, frustrated, and resentful.
The reason was clear. Romney controlled the pacing and the direction of the debate. Jim Lehrer looked like the overmatched substitute teacher trying to deal with a roomful of 10-year-olds who’ve just come back from a week’s worth of snow days. He brings with him about 40 years of goodwill dating back to the 70s and the MacNeil/Lehrer Report, but for all that, the debate may as well have had a timekeeper rather than a moderator. Lehrer decided that the theme of the night would be to get the two men to draw distinctions between themselves and the other man, and Romney simply determined from the beginning that he’d oblige, but on his own terms. So well did he use his time that while Obama actually had the ball longer (42 minutes to Romney’s 38), it seemed as though Romney talked longer.
(Regardless of who won, I think this format is a winner, allowing the candidates to have some real give-and-take, and determine where they want the debate to go, rather than the stiff, answer-rebut-rebut-next question format that we’ve seen for 40 years. We’re never going to get Lincoln-Douglas, but this is close to it for Short Attention Span Nation.)
It was on those final two questions – the one about healing the partisan divide that we hear every four years, and the closing statements – that we saw just how comprehensive Romney’s victory tonight had been. Romney gave the typical challenger’s answer that he’d sit down and talk to the other side. (One assumes that Washington Democrats play in good faith at one’s own peril, of course.) But right at the end of Obama’s answer, he said that sometimes you have to say no to your own party, and that Romney hadn’t been able to say no to the more extreme elements of the Republican party. The notion of “extreme” Republicans has, of course, been planted as the Democrats’ closing argument, and you see it all over just about every piece of campaign material they mail, post, or broadcast. So thoroughly did Romney own the night, that Obama was reduced to sneaking in the code-word at the very end of the very last question.
The body language of the closing statements said everything. Obama’s gaze was evasive, and mostly directly at the floor in the from of his lectern. When he finally turned to the camera to ask for people’s votes, it was so halting you didn’t believe he meant it. Romney spoke to the camera for the full two minutes, and ran through series of sharp contrasts defining the choice for the voters. It was simply stunning.
While Romney’s caution on much of policy was in evidence – things he likes about Dodd-Frank, things he likes about Obamacare – he also said some thing that should have left conservatives gleeful. His comment about the moral responsibility not to leave a debt to his grandkids could have come straight from AEI’s Arthur Brooks. His appeal to the Declaration and the Constitution, instead of mere pragmatism, when asked about the role of government was noteworthy because it came in a general election debate, rather than in a Republican nomination debate. And the repeated statements that the only way out of the deficit is to cut spending and grow the economy are the Reagan formula revived.
I thought at the time that Romney’s cementing himself in the primaries as the “centrist” candidate might give him more room to make a credible conservative case in the general election, if he chose to do that, and it looks as though he has.
All that said, once the euphoria of a strategic victory fades, there are some harsh realities the Romney campaign will have to face. First, the
press Democrats with bylines (a la Glenn Reynolds) will not be happy at the night’s events. Having rushed to their man’s defense once before, they’ll spend the next few days “fact-checking” Romney’s statements, which will, naturally deserve greater scrutiny, since he is believed to have won the evening. With Obama’s failure to bring home the “extremist” theme, count as well on the press Democrats with bylines to hammer that home, as well.
The big win also sets the bar high for Romney in the upcoming foreign policy debate, and lower for Obama. Don’t think Obama won’t be better prepared, but don’t think Team Romney doesn’ t know that, too.
All in all, a good night. One that will energize volunteers and perhaps put away a couple of the Senate races the Republicans should have sealed up long ago.
But Don’t. Count. Chickens. They may not be coming home to roost, but they don’t hatch for another month, either.