Everyone says that the debates don’t change the dynamics of a presidential race very often. President Barack Obama better hope that remains the case this year. Last night’s debate wasn’t even close. Mitt Romney thumped Obama in Denver. It was, as they say, an old-fashioned ass-kicking. Any Democrat who pretends otherwise is either deluding themselves or trying to kid you.
Will it shift the dynamics of the election? Perhaps not. The best Obama’s supporters could say last night is that the President avoided the kind of blunder that might hand Romney an obvious advantage. Maybe so but that kind of defensive mindset seemed somehow to have seeped into Obama last night. He seemed sluggish, even lethargic, hesitant, distracted and oddly unable to land any heavy punches on Romney. Much of the time he was pictured on the split-screen with his head down. Doubtless he was scribbling notes but it had the effect of making him look weary and disheartened. Defeated or despondent, even.
Obama’s answers were so bad that even when tossed a softball such as “What’s your view of the role the federal government can play?” he stumbled on his answer and failed to give any kind of credible – far less inspiring – call to federal arms. With the possible exception of a highly technical exchange on Medicare I’m not sure he won a single round.
Romney by contrast was back to his best. The 27 debates he endured against his Republican challengers in the spring proved good preparation for this contest. He was consistently sharper and quicker to the punch than Obama and much, perhaps even most, of the time his blows were heavier too. Hell, he even managed to come close to being funny from time to time. This was as likeable as Mitt can get.
A trivial observation that nevertheless set the tone: Obama told us that the debate was happening on his wedding anniversary. Somehow he contrived to flub this and Romney, responding to this news, managed to be funnier and more gracious about the Obamas anniversary than the president was himself.
Not once did Obama really manage to discombobulate a challenger who, frankly, looked leaner, fitter and hungrier for the fight. Even when given obvious opportunities to counter-attack – on Paul Ryan’s budget or on entitlements for instance – Obama pulled his punches. Heck, he never once mentioned the magic number: 47%. And when he complained about tax “loopholes” for oil companies and corporate jets he rather invited the response: well, you’ve been president for four years so couldn’t you have done something about that?
But if you play not to lose you often end up losing. That was Obama’s problem this evening. Now it may not matter in grand electoral terms but Democrats have cause to be appalled by Obama’s performance while Republicans will leave Denver believing, at least for a day or two but perhaps for longer than that, they’re right back in this and that Mitt has a little bit more than just a puncher’s chance.
It wasn’t that Romney was super-persuasive but he consistently had a better range of facts, figures and examples to illustrate his points than Obama had to put flesh on his. If this was a debate between a management consultant and a law professor then the former proved better equipped for the task at hand. Obama had 10% more speaking time but said (it seemed) 30% less than Romney.
There was an unusual amount of substance mixed in with all the usual nonsense. That’s fine. On some of it – on Dodd-Frank for example – Romney made a convincing case. Other parts of his presentation were less persuasive. Romney said he wouldn’t cut the “share” of taxes paid by the wealthy. Perhaps not but his budget plan suggests he actually will. He placed great faith in magic tax-cutting beans too and denied he’d cut any tax that increased the deficit. Even so, it was notable how Romney tacked to the centre in this debate. This was reasonable Romney and a Mitt who could understand your disappointment and even almost feel your pain.
Well, good people can agree to disagree on the truth of that. But as any old debater will let you know you can get away with any old twaddle so long as it ain’t challenged by your opponent. And Obama didn’t challenge Romney very much, very often or very effectively. No wonder Romney dominated the debate.
I’m not sure there were any true stand-out moments. There was certainly nothing that will be added to the (pretty short!) list of classic presidential debate moments. Nevertheless, Romney was poised, sharp and seemed to want to be president. Obama was passive and sluggish and seemed almost bored of the job.
That’s how it seemed in pure debating terms anyway. The politics of it are a different matter. But if you saw a convincing debating case for four more years then you’re a better, more acute man than me Gunga Din.
Even so, one last thing: in 2004 John Kerry won a clear and convincing victory against George W Bush in their first debate. And we know how that ended.