Ilse Burke watches the first presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney during a watch party put on by the South Orange County Tea Party in Dana Point, Calif. Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Last night’s presidential debate was historic in its significance. There’s no two ways about it, folks, it was a game changer.
It was like “there you go again” all night long.
As I write this, Barack Obama’s spinmeisters are trying to do what the president couldn’t – clearly articulate his plan for the economy and defend his performance in office the last four years.
You know it’s bad when Obama surrogates start attacking a true giant like Jim Lehrer. In fact, Lehrer actually tried to help Obama, providing leading phrases to get an answer rolling, such as, “but Mr. President, you’re saying that in order to get the job (reducing the deficit) done, it has to be balanced (between tax increases and spending reductions)…”
In stark contrast, Mitt Romney was focused and passionate all evening. He came across as someone who actually believed what he was saying. It was easy for him to explain his proposals and his overarching philosophy. Where the heck has that been all these months?
Romney had policy specifics and data points on the tip of his tongue. His preparation and strong intellect – surely no surprise to those who have worked with him over the last 30 years – made him appear presidential. In a time of uncertainty and malaise, that scores a lot of points.
The president, in contrast, leaned too heavily on poorly memorized talking points that provided him with little depth to both his answers and to his criticisms of Romney’s plans. At times, Obama seemed to seize chunks of talking points that were simply no longer viable because of the flow of the conversation.
There are a few reasonable theories for why this was happening.
First, Obama looked out of practice. Yes, even though he’s been on the campaign trail for a year. How could this be? The answer, in part, may lie in the fact that he doesn’t hold regular news conferences. And when he does, his team tightly controls the Q & A. The media has gone easy on Obama during his first term, and actually appears docile at times. As a result, the president isn’t used to defending his plans and articulating things clearly in a competitive, confrontational setting.
Also, there are no teleprompters in a debate format. If you have a script or critical data points, you have to internalize them. Obama didn’t. Thus, he stumbled and was less-than-persuasive at critical moments.
On the other side of the coin, it was the first time in months that the electorate was able to listen to Romney talk in depth without the haze of constant derogatory media chatter.
Viewers have to give the moderator – yes, Jim Lehrer – big credit for not getting side-tracked with nonsense like Romney’s tax rate or Obama’s 4-year-old speeches referencing Jeremiah Wright. The Obama team couldn’t use distractions to keep the electorate jumping like a cat chasing a flashlight’s glow across a floor. This was unfiltered. Here were the two candidates, face-to-face – one showed up, and one faltered badly.
I suspect last night’s debate will produce two important outcomes.
First, Obama will be far better prepared and combative the next time around. His David Axelrod-led team will do all it can over the next week to portray Romney as a liar – and also to get Obama’s mojo back. They have a lot of specifics to work with and will try to discredit the foundations of Romney’s arguments. This bitterly-toned groundswell is emerging already over social media like Twitter.
Second, however, those outside Obama’s base will now actually be willing to look beyond the personal attacks and listen to what Romney says on a more substantive level. In effect, these 90 minutes heavily mitigated the tens of millions of dollars the Obama camp has spent in recent weeks on Romney attack ads.
These voters may not necessarily agree with where Romney comes out on the issues, but they will now pay attention. Chances are, for many of them, if they’re undecided they have serious doubts about the nation’s leadership over the last four years and may be susceptible to trying something new.
Last night encapsulates the reason why following each ebb and flow of pre-debate polls serves only one purpose – to give pundits something to talk about.
The game is now on for real. A competitive, substantive election is what the American public deserves – and it finally looks like we’re going to get it. May the best man win.
- Five Takeaways From The First Presidential Debate
- Todd Domke: Romney Decisively Wins Debate; Obama Manages To Stay Awake
- Larry Summers & Greg Mankiw: Advice To The Next President
Video: Presidential Debate
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.