The first thing that should be said before any estimation of tonight’s debate is that, historically, presidential debates are not the “game-changers” all of the hype would lead one to believe. That doesn’t mean they don’t matter — they do, as John Kerry can attest. But while the first debate often provides the challenger a venue to introduce himself to the public and gain ground against the incumbent President, there has never been a debate so consequential that it turned a race upside down. With the possible exception of Al Gore, no one’s ever snatched defeat from the jaws of victory due to a poor debate showing.
If you’re so inclined, however, you can see all the above as a Lefty’s preamble before acknowledging a near-objective truth: in their first debate, Mitt Romney clearly bested President Barack Obama.
There were a few things Romney did well, and he proved himself to be the skilled debater his reputation foretold. As James Fallows of The Atlantic detailed in an informative and fun-to-read recent feature, Romney is nearly as adept in front of a podium and a moderator as he is maladroit on the campaign trail or talk show circuit. He’s focused, direct, energetic, aggressive, and polished. At times he may veer into being snippy or condescending — and he has an unfortunate habit of being a stickler about the rules, a trait that’s never particularly appealing, but is less so when coming from such a clean-cut and patrician candidate. But his overall affect is that of a confident and skilled master of a debate’s parry and thrust.
Obama, on the other hand, was halting, enervated, and tepid. He often was visibly uncomfortable, searching for words and losing himself in a miasma of rambling digressions, half-hearted criticisms, and defensive filibustering. While he had a few good lines — in particular one that sarcastically questioned whether Romney was vague on policy because his ideas were so good — and, at times, he seemed to be gaining his footing and finding his rhythm. But Romney’s ability to brush off the President’s criticisms and, crucially, keep the reeling off one dire economic statistic after another, resulted in Obama looking as if he was the one who’d never quite before been so close to the klieg lights.
Granting Romney’s considerable skill, I’ve got to say that Obama lost just as much as Romney won. At no point did the President forcefully challenge his Republican opponent to defend politically unpalatable positions — like his commitment to cut taxes for the wealthy or repeal Obamacare’s protections for this with preexisting conditions — and not once did Obama bring up either Romney’s infamous 47 percent comments or his record as CEO of Bain Capital. What’s more, the President rather inexplicably went out of his way at times to emphasize the similarities between the two candidates. On Social Security, health care reform, and even deficit reduction, Obama, unprovoked, granted Romney’s generally similar policy vision. Romney, who more than ever before in the campaign thus far rhetorically positioned himself toward the center, emphatically insisting he did not want to cut taxes for the wealthy or reduce spending on education, was all too happy to agree.
Coming from a man who has spent much of the past two years arguing that his reelection campaign would be about contrasting ideologies and visions of what it means to be American, Obama’s willing conflation was not simply odd; it was malpractice.
Some liberals are hoping the many potentially Pinocchio-worthy statements Romney let loose about his record and platform will ultimately render the face-off a wash or even an Obama win. If Obama’s campaign relentlessly pushes this line with the media, I could imagine it having some traction. But however well his teammates manage to stanch the bleeding, tonight was a clear loss for the President, who saw whatever chance he had of decisively ending the contest drift away from him, carried by his own meandering and bloodless verbosity.