Tonight’s debate showed Mitt Romney’s strengths: He was well-prepared, and he delivered his well-prepared lines nicely. The folks who judge debate by forcefulness and body language will no doubt give him good marks. Barack Obama, on the other hand, looked and sounded like the Obama who seemed disappointing to many Democrats early in the 2008 nomination cycle. I suspect that many pundits are going to initially grade Romney the winner – and it’s always good to be called a winner.
And yet. Another way of looking at tonight’s debate is that it was….well…dull. I wouldn’t exactly call it wonkish; neither candidate really delved deeply into their plans. But virtually the entire debate was spent on public policy. Hardly any of the personal attacks that get so much attention during campaigns were even alluded to; about the only exception I can recall is Obama’s attempt to use Romney’s line about how people getting started in life should just borrow from their parents, which Obama botched badly anyway. No “built that” or “47 percent” tonight. Nor were there any real fireworks. Indeed, I really have no idea (having flipped off the TV as soon as the debate ended) what sound bites the media will choose. Oh, there are lots of solid-sounding ones from Romney, and far fewer from Obama – but none of the pre-prepared jokes or attack lines or anything really stood out to me. All of which means that I wouldn’t want to even start to guess whether the debate will do Romney any good, even in terms of a temporary bounce, although the fact that the media have been dumping on Romney pretty consistently for a month now probably means that they’re in the mood for playing this one up for him.
On the other hand, Romney’s policy positions are even more of a shambles now than they were previously. Romney’s position, over and over again, is to simply bluff it on policy. His tax plan continues to be the most obvious one, but it really happens across the board. Romney insisted tonight more than once that his tax plan will keep taxes the same for the wealthy, cut them for everyone else, and not add to the deficit. Forget about the Tax Policy Center; just that much is obviously incoherent and impossible. And, more to the point, it’s clear he’s going to keep on insisting that it adds up, no matter how clearly it doesn’t. But it’s not just that; on every policy, he’s just going to insist that the consequences of his plans that anyone might not like simply don’t exist, so that he’s for sweeping spending cuts but insists that no particular program that anyone brings up might lose any funding, or that he’s for repealing Obamacare but those with pre-existing conditions will magically be protected.
Not that Obama was able to do much about that. In the last half hour or so, he suddenly seemed to remember that he was supposed to point out that Romney’s plans were fantasies (which, in debate-speak, means that he said they had “no details”), but it was late in the evening and without much enthusiasm.
Of course, by then any of the handful of undecided voters who started out watching had long since switched to something more pleasant. Indeed, it was the kind of debate in which after the first five or ten minutes, both candidates were talking to the solid partisans and the pundits, because no one else could stand all that talk of Simpson-Bowles and Dodd-Frank and the rest of it. Which gets back to what I was saying above: The reactions to this debate will be media-driven, as they always are, but even more so. However, without a significant gaffe or slip, odds are the debate will recede from the headlines even quicker than most of them do.