WASHINGTON, October 3, 2012 — “What was Romney doing? He was winning!” That anguished cry from MSNBC’s Chris Matthews sums up tonight’s presidential debate.
The event was widely expected to be close, allowing the supporters of each candidate to declare victory. A post-debate poll from CNN showed how wrong that was and the extent of the blood-letting: Viewers thought Romney won by well over two-to-one. The post-debate consensus is truly bipartisan.
The candidates were given the debate topics ahead of time. They were expected (by this writer, ate least) to be well-prepared, polished, and brimming with talking points. Mitt Romney at least was well-prepared. He seemed delighted to be there, at one point commenting, “this is fun.” President Obama was utterly lost.
Obama looked like he’d rather be anywhere else. The split screen was fascinating to watch. Romney watched Obama carefully and attentively when Obama spoke. Obama stared at his podium as if completely unaware that anyone in the TV audience could see him while Romney spoke. The complete lack of stagecraft was stunning. Obama was meandering, sometimes wonkish, boring, and utterly unconvincing. He seemed peevish at times, as if unable to believe that he was being challenged. His expression and his body language were alternately bored and uncomfortable.
A debate like this is largely about atmospherics. It isn’t enough to be informed and in command of the facts. It’s important to sound and look presidential. One man on the stage looked presidential: Romney. He was in command, both of Obama and of the moderator, Jim Lehrer. It seemed that he took more time, though in fact Obama spoke for four miniutes more than Romney.
Romney was brimming with numbers. He sounded well-informed, measured, even magisterial. He was respectful to the president, calling him “Mr. President” and showing a respectful demeanor, but at the same time he made it clear that he was there as an equal to the president and not in awe, and this clearly unsettled Obama.
In every exchange during the debate, Obama lost. He was unable to make use of Romney’s time at Bain Capital, something widely used against Romney, while Romney took his business experience and made it sound both positive and relevant.
Whatever you believe about Obama’s honesty, he was clearly honest in the days leading up to the debate when he claimed that he’s not a good debater. His vaunted rhetorical skills demand a teleprompter, a script, and a submissive audience. He got none of those tonight, and he choked.
The Obama campaign will make an issue of Romney’s assertion that his plan to cut tax rates across the board by 20 percent doesn’t represent a $5 trillion tax cut, mostly to the wealthy. It will trot out Big Bird as a possible victim of a Romney budgetary death panel. Romney handed the Obama campaign some potential ammunition. It’s up to him now to capitalize on his victory in this debate and turn it into momentum, and to provide some details to support his assertions in the debate lest the Democrats accuse him of lying his way through (as they are on MSNBC right now).
Was the debate a game changer? That remains to be seen. John Kerry supposedly won his debates with George W. Bush, but you’ll find no Kerry Administration in the history books. The debate is better viewed as an opportunity. It has the potential to change the dynamics of this race, but whether it does so depends on Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. At the very least, though, it will charge up GOP voters and stop discussion of a Romney-Ryan implosion. It demonstrated clearly that it’s far too soon to write off Mitt Romney.
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