First, the obvious: the unquestionable winner of the night was Romney. If by chance you didn’t watch the debate and you’re wondering, did Romney win or did the President lose, the answer is “yes.”
My other thoughts:
The moderator: I’ve read quite a bit of criticism of the moderating this morning, and it was a topic on last night’s LeagueCast. But I had little problem with it. I have no problem with candidates pushing for more time on big topics than the anemic amount normally allotted by this style of debate. At the end of the day, the difference between 20-minute bursts on five topics vs. 15-minute bursts on six topics is a bit of a wash for me – especially for a format that encourages little but stump speech rehash.
The President’s performance: I’m not sure what the issue was with President last night, and I don’t want to speculate. No, tell a lie – I would love to speculate, but I’m having a hard time coming up with an explanation for his looked-annoyed-to-be-there snoozefest that doesn’t sound ridiculous. On a dare, he chugged his entire 20th anniversary bottle of champagne backstage before walking out? His Muslim Brotherhood overlords kept him up to all hours the night before, carefully making sure he understood his role in The Next Phase? Karl Rove was holding Sasha and Malia in some undisclosed location, and would only release them only if Obama’s performance was sufficiently terrible?
Beats me, but it was pretty awful.
Romney’s Performance: If I had to sum it up in two words: Alpha Dog. He was smooth, confident and comfortable, and he looked presidential. It harkened back to the way Romney utterly eviscerated Perry back in the primaries. Mitt is clearly as powerful on a debate stage as he is awkward talking to interviewers one-on-one. More importantly, his performance solidified for me my long-held belief that Romney could make a very good president. (This makes me the only single person in the United States that thinks that either Obama or Romney would be a fine choice for the next four years.)
What this means for Romney’s chances: Nothing. As I noted two days ago, in the modern Internet and cable TV era the only people that watch these debates are political junkies, and they watch them primarily to root for their guy. A lot of Obama supporters were disappointed with the President’s performance last night; none of them are reassessing their votes this morning.
Romney should expect some juice, however. He will probably see a temporary small uptick in the polls, and will undoubtedly see more donations come his way this morning than would have come if he had bombed. But count me among those that say that, in terms of electability, he missed an opportunity.
Romney’s problem, both with his base and independents, is that they don’t like him; they don’t like him because they don’t trust him. Deserved or not, he comes across as being inauthentic. His claiming firm, deep values that then shift depending upon whatever populace he’s trying to get to vote for him is the public persona that currently defines him. If he had a game-changing obstacle to climb last night, it wasn’t telling people what they wanted to hear – it was convincing people that he was willing to stand for something, even at the expense of their vote. I have a sense that people are waiting to see this from him, that they are wanting him to give them a reason to trust, and consequently like, the real Mitt Romney. But last night Romney again pretended that that obstacle didn’t exist, and instead went once again for the copier salesman approach.
During the debate Romney acted the part of Santa Clause, promising lands of milk and honey at no cost to the American people. He claimed that he would eliminate the deficit painlessly – with smaller payments over a smaller amount of time, without cutting the spending you love. The most comparable analogy I can think of would be if your credit card company called you out of the blue and said that if you just lowered your monthly payments and kept buying things you couldn’t afford, they would forgive your balance. I you get that call in the middle of the night, you tend to assume it’s a scam – you don’t give the caller your social security number and PIN number for customer verification. He promised to make it all possible by eliminating loopholes – but only the secret ones that are unfair. (And by unspoken agreement, not the loopholes you use, because those loopholes are totally fair – amiright?)
He said that he would be courageous in eliminating programs that added to the deficit, but only those that weren’t worth borrowing for. His only two examples? A healthcare program that doesn’t even go into effect for another two years and PBS. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s a formula for not touching any of the expensive entitlements you want plus increasing military spending by $2 trillion, and offsetting it by eliminating a currently non-existent cost and a $300 million dollar arts grant that makes up .00000001875% of our national debt.
He promised to do away with pesky government regulation, while keeping great government regulation. This message is actually music to my ears, since I have long been a proponent of treating regulation as neither Good nor Evil and instead focusing on improving it. It also should have been the easiest well for Mitt to have drawn water that was both potable and substantial. Instead, he gave a weak-sauce testimony that he would eliminate Dodd-Frank, but only the bad parts – you want to keep the good parts! – without giving a hint of what he thought was good or bad.
Similarly, he promised to eliminate Obamacare and replace it with something nebulous that kept all of Obamacare’s popular (and, btw, expensive) parts, while eliminating all of it’s unpopular (and, btw, cost-saving) parts. And by doing so he promised it would be less expensive, and leave no one without coverage or facing pre-existing condition coverage holes. How would he do this? He wouldn’t say, but trust him, it will be totally awesome. He also promised, oddly, that he would get bipartisan consensus and support for all of this.
All of the above made for a very feel-good performance from the challenger, but in the long run I suspect it will only add fuel to the fires of American’s belief that he’s a used-car salesman. Romney surely had no idea going in the President would be so vacant and lethargic, but I still find it disappointing that his team decided to go the route of playing into the negative stereotype that seems to dominate his public image. If the election were tomorrow, maybe I like the strategy more. As it is, however, there’s far too much time for the Obama camp to shine a flashlight in the very empty (but pretty!) vision Romney spun.
It would have been better in the long run that he lost a few popular sound bites last night, in exchange for building some credibility – which is what he is most going to need in between now and November.