Last night’s square-off between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney was unlike most presidential debates of recent years. It was filled with policy and wonkish references to studies and pieces of legislation like Dodd-Frank. The average voter was in for a show that was more substance and style, although the facts were often cleverly crafted to differing points of view. All the voters and political analysts had to do was stay awake.
Jim Lehrer may as well not even been there as both Obama and Romney ran over him like a hostage tied to a train track. That about describes Lehrer’s situation, too. What is a television commentator going to do when the President and the man who wants to be president ignore him? Lehrer was left to chirps in the background as he tried to muscle up enough words to interrupt both candidates. That is particularly difficult to do when trying to rein in the President of the United States. The only person in that room who would dare to tell the President to shut up is the First Lady. That assertiveness allowed the President to speak for an extra four minutes over Romney.
Yet Lehrer being trampled by both Obama and Romney was what made this debate good. I didn’t find anything wrong about the anarchic respect for time by the candidates. It allowed for a bit of a free-for-all that is unheard of in these carefully scripted debates. If there was a loser in the debate, then it was Jim Lehrer. However, Lehrer has nothing to be ashamed of. He took it in the chin for democracy.
Between Obama and Romney, the consensus is that Romney won. That is probably true, but it isn’t by much and whether it will change the polls is questionable. At times, Obama appeared meandering. He started to make a point and then changed direction. Romney stayed on target much better.
Romney’s performance is more the result of low expectations than style and substance. He kicked out facts and hit some strong points, such as his $90 billion criticism of Obama’s green energy tax credits. After watching Romney bumble, making 47% comments and ill-timed foreign policy statements on the campaign trail, all he had to do was stand toe-to-toe with the Obama. A draw would have been a victory for Romney, but he deserves the win because his debate skills from some 20 previous debates over the last year made him look sharper than the rusty Obama, who hasn’t been in one since 2008.
This debate looked similar to the first George W. Bush and John Kerry debate in 2004. Kerry was honed by Democratic debates; Bush had spent four years doing his job in the White House. It is easy for the non-president to look a president’s equal in these circumstances. Perhaps it should be assumed that in future first debates a challenger, sharpened by a primary season, is going to outperform a president who has spent his time at presidential duties.
Both candidates disagreed strongly on facts. Both distorted and twisted the truth to fit their viewpoint. That is to be expected. A good example of that is the $5 trillion tax cut Obama tried to place on Romney. Romney disputed it. Part of the Romney plan is that tax cuts will be offset by reducing exemptions. In that way, Romney is correct that the tax cut will not total $5 trillion because some revenue will lower it. Those tax cuts will not be completely offset, though.
Part of the difference in their interpretations is that Obama is referring to a continuation of the Bush tax cut in the Romney plan. Romney has not promised to make exemptions to raise revenue that is not now being received. In the $5 trillion statement Romney and Obama are both correct and both wrong. It just depends on how the question is assumed and the answer phrased.
More interesting was the demeanor of the candidates. Romney had a plastic, fake smile the entire night. He looked like a Botox candidate that can only make one facial expression. It reminded me of a Nancy Pelosi smile, which is a bit eerie. On the other side, Obama was looking down at the podium and taking notes so often and long that it looked like his eyes were drooped down and he was nodding off.
Romney came across as more aggressive, but he hit the fine line where he was not disrespectful. This is what Americans want in a president. He must be in control but not overbearing. Romney mastered that in this first debate. He also appeared more nervous, especially towards the end. Romney was blinking heavily in his final two-minute statement, which is a sign of stress. He was also more jumpy than during the earlier part of the debate. If this debate had gone another half hour, I’m not sure if he would still have been declared the winner. It looked like he might be starting to lose his balanced aggressiveness.
Obama’s problem was that he was too cool. He looked unruffled by everything that evening. That was part of his problem. He didn’t have the fire in the belly for the debate as Romney had. For Romney, this was the single most important moment of his life; For Obama, four years of presidential burdens and stresses made this like another day at the office.
Romney won because he proved he could look presidential and avoid putting his foot in his mouth. That is no small accomplishment under the stressful conditions of a presidential debate. Because there were no lines more memorable than “I like Big Bird” and no gaffes at all, this is not a game-changing debate. It does reinvigorate the Romney campaign, but it only kicks down the road the debate that is supposed to settle which man will be a better president. Romney will need to do better to win the next debates. His expectations are now higher so the scenario is set for Obama to prevail in the town hall setting of the next debate.
The big winner is Big Bird. Any time a presidential debate can draw attention to a government-funded project like PBS in a positive way, that makes for a winner. Of course, the loser was also PBS’ Jim Lehrer. As I mentioned earlier, Lehrer looked bad but that was a good thing. It was better that he stayed out of the bantering between Obama and Romney as much as possible. It likely that Martha Raddatz, who will monitor the vice-presidential debate, and Candy Crowley, who will monitor the next presidential one, are going to be far more assertive than Lehrer. That may not be a good thing.
In the spirit of levity, here are the best zingers from the debate.