In case you missed it, the first of three major debates between the two presidential candidates happened Wednesday night. Maybe you were asleep. If you were, you were probably watching. President Obama appeared to be asleep for the first 15 minutes, and he was supposed to be participating.
Mitt Romney maintained his best Audiobook Narrator with Great Hair demeanor, and Obama kept glancing over as though startled that Romney was still there. Romney spoke calmly, feelingly, and only unloaded a few prepared-sounding groaner-zingers.
Admittedly, the run-up to the debate consisted of everyone saying that Romney was as good as gone, that it would be nothing short of a miracle if he did not short-circuit during the debate and go reeling around giving off sparks and endangering the life of the moderator, that he had to pull water from a rock to turn the beat around. This only served to make his comeback more dramatic. If we were to say, as 32 percent of those watching did, that the debate was a draw, where would the fun be in that for the next month? No, Romney won.
Not only did he win, he literally wiped the floor with Obama. This was “Lord of the Flies.” He set the whole island on fire and chased him down with a spear. He trampled poor Jim Lehrer underfoot, rolling a boulder onto his head, even though Lehrer clearly had the conch. Poor Lehrer. Whether letting go of the leash was a calculated, intelligent choice on his part, or simply the only option for a man walking two recalcitrant cats, he definitely let go of the leash.
Obama had the demeanor of someone who did not realize that the quiz was today. You got the sense that he was hoping someone would leap out from behind the set and announce that this was just an elaborate anniversary prank set up by Michelle. “Wasn’t that awkward!” he would say afterward. “I thought I was actually going to have to debate that absurd person.”
Unfortunately, no such reprieve came. Obama had to take part, and by the time he realized this, it was nearly half over. When he started trying to hammer Romney for a lack of specific plans, too much time had passed, and Romney could smoothly reply that he was only eschewing specifics in order that he might more closely resemble Ronald Reagan.
How to describe the debate? It was like a lecture in which the professor kept nodding off.
I don’t know whether the night was a sign of the triumph or the failure of the narrative. Half of the narrative implies that Romney is an awkward, insincere, robotic drone incapable of connecting with humans. This is what makes him so fun to cover. In the room, he’s about as personable as a vacuum cleaner. Whole barracks of people pull their hair out over his facts. Obama will obviously defeat him, everyone insists, and there are already half a dozen pieces detailing what will transpire next.
But then he appears on television, looking natural and poised for all the reasons that actresses who seem tiny and overdramatized in person look incandescent on the other side of a screen, supplying just the right size of sound bite. His scale works well for this. “Well, he only looks presidential on television,” everyone says. But this is television, and boy, does he.