Apparently the past month of the Mitt Romney campaign follies, which sunk him in nearly every poll imaginable, has given the Obama campaign the idea that by merely showing up and not making a complete ass of its candidate will be enough to secure re-election. If not, then perhaps the president’s stupefying lack of interest or hint of motivation in the first of three debates illustrates that perhaps he’d prefer sitting the next four years out. In one of the most lackluster, half-assed, almost condescendingly flaccid debate performance in recent memory, Barrack Obama slammed the brakes on any post-convention, anti-Romney momentum he’s enjoyed and thus failed spectacularly to put this election season to rest.
That is not to say this wasn’t a two-way street. Mitt Romney came to play, displaying an attention to detail and passion to refute, charge and emote that was sorely missing in the incumbent. Romney looked like a man whose chances of winning were diminishing. He was bolder, surer and insensibly prepared for a fight. And although it appears at times as if he, and especially his campaign, is not focused on winning this election, the candidate deftly displayed he is not fond of losing either.
This was the Mitt Romney the numbers crunchers were looking to emerge since he locked up the Republican Party’s nomination months ago. He shit-canned the one that spent months flopping around awkwardly sucking up to the ultra-right of his constituency, trying to out-Newt or out-Trump the loons and spewing goofy base-meat. The old model looked uncomfortable paining to shed his well-earned moderate, Eastern establishment Harvard business school sheen. That Romney fed into all the notions that he was anything but genuine; shifting his purpose with each news cycle, honing in on subjects he knew little if nothing about.
The new and improved Mitt Romney that showed up in Denver was nothing like that guy. He displayed the grit that helped him fend off many, too many, primary debates, appearing presidential, staying on point, shoveling aside attacks while heaving the kitchen sink at his opponents. Romney was not the stiff we’ve been accustomed to during television interviews or campaign speeches. For the first time in the general election the Republican candidate actually looked comfortable in his skin; even animated and strident.
Of course Romney was anything but perfect. Many of his “facts” were at best dubious and some complete fabrications, as too were a glut of Obama’s claims; that is when he bothered to cobble a few together in a barely coherent form. There were times you felt Romney’s desperation, the bullying into retorts that repeated his original point, his controlling the pace by pushing around the feeble and obviously overwhelmed Jim Lehrer, who moderating the thing like someone who’d wandered off the street with a vaguely penciled outline that he scrambled to conceive. Mostly, if there is one critique of this masterful performance by a challenger it’s that he appeared as if he were a heckler allowed on stage to better berate the talent. A good debater knows when he has taken the hill. Romney wanted to take it and dance around while reminding you he took it.
While Romney beat points to death and had answers for anything that came his way, like his miraculously unchallenged claim that he doesn’t boast an across-the-board five trillion dollar unpaid for tax cut (specifically estimated at 4.8 trillion over 10 years clearly displayed on his website for months) the president barely followed up on his charges of Romney’s fuzzy math or his trickle-down theories or even Romney’s skewering of the magic $716 billion in Medicare cuts that everyone loves but seems to accuse the other side of loving.
By acting above the fray and attempting to appear so stately he could hardly be challenged by this attack dog that wandered on stage, Obama came off as wholly disinterested, even baffled at times; spending extended seconds looking down at his podium and jotting the odd thought or doodling into a pad and then looking up as if to say, “Huh, what? What happened here?” You know the look. You’ve seen it from someone you know when they have their face in a smartphone paying attention to something else why you try to finish a sentence.
Of course, Obama pulled the same routine in 2008 against Hillary Clinton, who mostly wiped the floor with him in every primary debate. When his supporters and many pundits begged him to get tough, he played it the other way, feeding on his likability and painstakingly fending off the “angry black man” tag that was sure to rear its ugly head. He survived with this “holier than thou” routine in the presidential campaign merely because John McCain was the one on defense. The Republican president presiding over the greatest economic collapse in generations was wildly unpopular and beaten to a pulp. The country was hungry for change. Obama was the “change” guy.
This is not 2008 and Obama is not the outsider anymore. He is not only the president, but also the frontrunner. The math still strongly favors him in the Electoral College. To be flogged relentlessly like this and not have a scintilla of a defense in a debate format is an embarrassment that will cost his campaign some ground, not to mention a blown opportunity to bury what has been a haphazard campaign to unseat him.
Without getting into the wonky details, of which there were plenty of long-winded snoozers from both men, Romney unleashed the kind of measured criticism that is needed in a campaign against a vulnerable incumbent. He performed the task of a worthy challenger; shedding doubts about his weak survival techniques in the face of self-inflicted turmoil and inconsistency. There is little doubt he knocked it out of the park, as best as can be expected from a man that even when he is doing well in a battle of intellectual volleys still looks as if he is regurgitating computer data in his head.
If anything it is Obama that looked robotic and confused. It was Obama who threw out dead-end platitudes and when firing his own bullets did nothing in the way of cementing it with force. And while a challenger always benefits in the first debate from sharing a stage with the president of the United States, it can also be an opportunity for the president to remind the electorate who’s in charge. That opportunity has come and gone. Romney evened the field to that end if nothing else.
But the biggest gain for Romney and in turn loss for the president, resides in the scheduling of the next debate, a two-week respite to leave time for the vice presidential sound-off. Two solid weeks for the Romney campaign to tag ads and dominate the news cycle the way the Obama campaign has done over the past three weeks. It is harder for the president to keep bashing Romney with the 47 percent comments or his Bain Capital record or his absent tax statements on the stump when he completely left them out of the narrative during the debate. Although I believe it would have achieved him a measure of the day, it may have been a wiser move to avoid getting into a muckraking contest with Romney and leave it to his surrogates. Nevertheless, this was a shell of the man who has been ramping it up along the trail and that is a head-scratcher for many in the Obama camp.
What this ultimately means is Romney is not dead, which he surely would have been if he stunk up the joint. But he didn’t. He kicked ass and saved his campaign. Period. He sent notice to those in his camp that were convinced he was crashing and burning that he intends to hang around.
Historically, two debates that portrayed a disinterested and dumbfounded incumbent were George H.W. Bush’s 1992 performance that caught him several times checking his watch as if he were enduring a boring gala and not defending his job and Ronald Reagan’s beating at the hands of the man he would soon crush, Walter Mondale in 1984. Reagan looked so lost in that first debate many wondered if he had the faculties to find his way home, much less lead the free world. Reagan returned a different man and won. Bush did not, and lost.
This performance has put Barack Obama in the same boat.
One has to wonder now if he knows how to swim.