For a while Wednesday night, the United States was in maximum danger. At military radar installations, soundproof rooms maintained by the CIA and Navy ships at sea, the men and women charged with keeping an eye out for a sneak attack fell sound asleep. They had been watching the presidential debate.
Those who managed to stay awake had to conclude that Mitt Romney had the better night. He was strong without being mean. He was confident without being smug. He was critical without being rude, and although he trifled with the truth, not for a moment did he give himself away. If there is one word to characterize his performance, it was presidential.
That could not be said for the man who happens to the president. Barack Obama somehow lacked energy. He was not forceful and only occasionally did he flash that million-dollar smile. He was, if anything, too nice to Romney, agreeing with him more the necessary on matters such as education and Social Security. At times, Obama seemed unsure of his facts. He said that businesses get tax breaks when they want to move abroad. Romney chose to differ. “Look, I’ve been in business for 25 years,” he said. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. I maybe need to get a new accountant.” A hammer went down. Romney made the sale.
All in all, this was a debate to forget. Neither candidate stumbled badly. Neither scored a knockout blow. No one made a huge mistake, and no one looked like he didn’t belong on the stage. What the hardy viewer got to see was an exchange of numbers, some of them in the trillion-dollar range, whose accuracy the viewer could not possibly judge. If you favor Romney, you might believe that $716 billion is going to go missing from Medicare; if you like Obama, you know Romney’s blowing smoke. But whether you like Obama or Romney, you know Obama fibbed a bit when he intimated that he had done all he could for the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan. He had, in effect, ignored it.
Watching the debate on CNN, you got to see how a focus group of undecided viewers reacted to answers. Usually, Obama did better with women and Romney with men — no surprise there. Sometimes, though, the two lines were intertwined and flat. I think that’s because they fell asleep.