For Obama supporters, however, the evening’s entertainment failed to live up to the advance billing. Mitt Romney did everything his supporters could have hoped for in tonight’s debate, while President Obama let his supporters down.
Romney not only provided the much smoother performance, he also attacked more effectively than the president and came off as more of a centrist than he has since he started running. To do so, he had to bend the truth six ways from Sunday, but impressions count a lot more than truth in debates.
To summarize: Romney won’t raise taxes, he won’t cut the budget for education, he’ll increase military spending and he’ll somehow balance the budget. The math doesn’t work, but if the number of math teachers declines on his watch, perhaps fewer people will figure that out. He favors at least the idea of regulation; it’s just actual existing regulations put in place to keep Wall Street from blowing up the economy again that he objects to. He wants to keep the popular parts of Obamacare and scrap the parts that people don’t understand, which he mischaracterized throughout the evening. (At one point, he said Obamacare had caused health insurance costs to rise by $2,500 a year. Later, he said that they would cause health insurance costs to rise by $2,500 a year. Some confusion here on whether he’s describing the past or the future, but why let time stand in the way of a good attack line?)
In short, Romney portrayed himself as Mr. Reasonable, and Obama let him get away with it. No 47-percent references; just one reference to the whacko-right things that Romney said while debating his Republican rivals earlier this year. The libertarian ideology of the Republican Party is not popular with the American people, but Obama failed to pin Republicanism on Romney. Big failure.
There was a fearful asymmetry of performance as well. Romney repeated attack lines and Obama declined to refute him the second or third time around — most particularly, on Romney’s assertion that Obama was gutting Medicare by more than $700 billion. Obama’s attack on Romney’s plan for Medicare, by contrast, was more nuanced, more complicated and fuzzier — and he did not repeat it anywhere near the number of times Romney repeated his own attacks.
One particular Romney advantage: He attacked Obama’s programs in the name of American individualism, while Obama failed to attack Romney’s programs in a similarly systemic way, and failed as well to offer systemic rebuttals. For instance, Romney asserted, ludicrously, that the private market can deliver health care more efficiently than the government can. Obama provided one specific refutation: Medicare’s administrative fees are a lot lower than private insurance providers’. But he needed to be as assertive in defending a role for public endeavors by government as Romney was in assailing them, and he failed in that task. Obama’s invocation of Lincoln’s activist view of government was good, but he didn’t invest his defense with the passion and snap that Romney brought to his attack.
Does all this matter, with so few voters out there who have yet to make up their minds? Hard to say, but Romney is sure to get a bounce in the tone of media coverage, and some major GOP donors who were about to spend their remaining dough on senatorial and congressional candidates might decide to throw more money Romney’s way. For his part, Obama will be under intense pressure to step up his game, be more engaged, come out blazing, in the two remaining debates. He needs to, and his Beltway supporters can’t count solely on the Nats to lift their spirits.