The first of three presidential debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney was held last night. New Jersey governor Chris Christie had boldly predicted that the event would be a “game-changer” for the Romney campaign. As it turned out, Christie was probably overstating things. Nevertheless, Romney’s energetic performance put new life into his quest for the White House, while Obama let slip an opportunity to finish off his Republican opponent.
The immediate post-debate analysis seemed to stress style over substance. Romney, pundits agreed, looked happy to be on the University of Denver stage, while Obama appeared to endure the 90-minute debate. Romney smiled; Obama scowled. Romney was aggressive and weighed in on issues with gusto; Obama was rather detached and professorial. Romney ran roughshod over moderator Jim Lehrer; Obama was more diffident in dealing with the aging and rather incompetent PBS journalist. The performances left MSNBC’s coterie of lefties in a state of near-apoplexy, while at Fox there was smug satisfaction.
This observer thought Romney started and finished strong, while Obama scored some important points in between. The debate was to be divided into six segments. The first three concerned aspects of the economy (jobs, the deficit and debt, and entitlements) followed by healthcare, the role of government, and “governing.” The first segment ran over time — no surprise, given the flabby moderator — and time pressure caused the segment on governing to be dropped. Romney scored substantive points on Obama’s persistent deficits, his energy policy (billions thrown away on green energy boondoggles, lack of oil and gas drilling on federal land), and feeble job growth. Indeed, during the first half of the debate he dominated the stage, despite the fact that some of his arguments and assertions didn’t quite pass the smell test.
About halfway through the debate the subject of Medicare was introduced, and here Obama fought back by eviscerating the Paul Ryan voucher scheme. The president helped himself with seniors, a critical constituency that had already begun moving his way after the selection of Ryan to be Romney’s running mate. Obama also touched a populist chord with some well-chosen words regarding the regulation of Wall Street, and without having to explain or justify the absurd aspects of his main regulatory tool, the Dodd-Frank legislation passed in 2010.
That said, Obama muffed the chance to finish off Romney and end the race a month before Election Day. Obama never mentioned the notorious 47% recording, giving Romney free rein to express (which he did over and over) his love and compassion for everyone in America. He failed to mention the Republican-led House of Representatives, despite the fact that Congress is the most unpopular institution in America. He said nothing about Romney’s tax returns or overseas accounts — juicy populist targets that could have energized not just the Democratic base, but many white working-class voters who lean Republican. For Obama, this debate was definitely an opportunity lost.
Romney, down for the count coming in, picked himself up off the mat and is now back in the fight. For true conservatives — not to mention libertarians — his performance had to grate, for he tried (as usual) to be all things to all people. He was once again short on details about his major policy proposals. And he refused (understandably, since it would be political suicide) to make clear the stark choices America faces, particularly on the fiscal front. His success last night was not, with apologies to Governor Christie, a game-changer, but it does give him hope and the opportunity to make the race competitive again.
Was Obama rusty, as some pundits postulated last night, or did he hold back for fear of appearing to be an “angry black man,” something that he and his handlers have been concerned about since he first declared his candidacy for the highest office? We’ll probably never know, but the betting here is that he will be much more aggressive in the remaining two debates. That and the tendency of Mitt Romney to place his own foot firmly in his mouth will, this observer believes, lead to a second term for Barack Obama.