Mitt Romney had a very good debate tonight. Though debates often reinforce existing perceptions, Romney took steps towards reversing his image as an out of touch plutocrat. During the extended jousts of numbers crunching, he humanized himself in an unexpected way — by converting his boardroom aura from something cold and aloof into an aura of earnestness. He skillfully played the part of the technocratic centrist he used to be and whose balanced approach to policy and government he has completely abandoned. Romney also landed clear blows when indicting the Obama recovery. He seemed particularly on message in claiming that the proof that Obama’s government centric policies had failed could be found in the current state of the economy.
Obama missed key opportunities. When invoking Romney’s suggestion that kids should borrow money from their parents to pay for college, he was far too polite and discursive and didn’t make the moment stick. His defense of Obamacare took too long to make the point that Romney, in repealing the law, would take insurance away from millions without replacing it with anything.
That said, Obama won some understated victories. He won the battle over Medicare; Romney was effectively defined by that exchange as Mr. Voucher. Obama did a decent job in exposing Romney’s lack of specificity on many of the issues that were discussed tonight, and tied them together into a larger pattern of evasiveness on Romney’s part.
Obama marginally won the argument over the deficit and taxes. Romney was forced to ricochet back and forth between claiming he would not raise middle class taxes and claiming his plan would cut taxes on everyone without ballooning the deficit, without once explaining how this might work. Obama’s best moments of the night were when he ridiculed Romney’s math and when he tied Romney’s trickle down policies to those of Bush while contrasting the Bush/Romney approach with that of himself and Bill Clinton.
Indeed, one bright spot for Obama was that he largely reinforced the message that came out of his convention, which was undoubtedly one of the Obama camp’s strategic goals. That could matter over the long term.
But overall, Romney had the far better night. At a minimum, his performance will get pundits to stop blowing funeral dirges and will get them to start saying it’s a race again. Romney needed that badly, and he accomplished that and then some.
The question is whether Romney accomplished enough. He needed to change this race in a very fundamental way. Romney won, but in so doing, he confirmed yet again that his campaign thinks he can win the election without presenting any credible policy agenda of his own. The holes in his tax plan were exposed once again, which will likely draw more media scrutiny in the days ahead. Romney repeated the bullet points from his five point plan, but that plan is laughably vague on how it would help the middle class, and he recited the same vague language about it that has already been shown to test poorly, almost certainly because of its lack of specificity.
What remains to be seen is whether he conveyed convincingly and affirmatively enough that his plan would engineer a faster rebound and would strengthen the middle class, at a time when voters are already concluding the groundwork has been laid for recovery. That’s what he really needed to do to alter the basic trajectory of a contest that Obama is currently winning. It was unquestionably a good night for Romney, but it’s unclear whether it will produce the big change he needed.