What a debate! We’ve been hearing for months from the high and mighty political intelligentsia that the economy is the most important issue to the American public in this election. Frankly, it doesn’t take a political genius to reach this conclusion. The unemployment rate is sky-high, gas is expensive, the housing market is anemic, and the American people desperately want to know what the candidates plan to do about it. People are hurting. It stands to reason, therefore, that a debate focusing solely on economic issues would be very important, and I agree. In addition, this was the first Presidential debate of the 2012 election season, which carries with it great historical significance.
Many great debate moments over the years have occurred during the first round. I don’t remember Kennedy/Nixon, but I’m sure we’re all aware of Nixon’s sickness and poor performance, which very likely cost him the election. And who could forget Al Gore’s “iron clad lockbox” from the first 2000 election debate? It inspired an SNL classic sketch from one of the last years SNL delivered well-executed political satire. This year’s debate will likely be viewed as “Romney’s debate clinic,” but more on that in a moment. Any way you look at it, this was a big night in America. It was Obama v. Romney – round 1, and I think Romney landed the first good punch. On top of that, Miguel Cabrera won the triple crown – the first since Yaz in ’67. And, my second favorite team, the A’s – yes, you heard me, the poor little A’s! – clinched their division. Moneyball vindicated! What a night!
In my opinion and by all accounts, Romney won the debate, and it was really no contest. I’m not smart enough to predict how Romney’s debate performance will impact votes come election day, but I do predict he will receive a bounce in the polls over the next week or two. Because Romney trails in most battleground states, he needs a sustained bounce in those states to have a fighting chance, and I think this is a possibility. However (and you Romney supporters are not going to like this), his path to victory remains very precarious. If you do the math, many things have to go right on November 6 for Romney to win. One false step and he’s done.
Last night’s debate was a grand opportunity for Romney to self-implode. He is susceptible to making verbal gaffes (which, honestly, I half-expected at any moment), but he avoided all major blunders and, in my estimation, delivered his best debate performance to date, for a few reasons. First, Romney remained on point thematically throughout. No matter the argument he was making, he always made certain to tie that argument back to one thing: creating jobs. With 23 million Americans out of work, this was a very clever strategy. Second, Romney’s points were clear, concise, and almost always bullet-pointed. This made his arguments easy to comprehend and remember. Although Romney spoke a full four minutes less than Obama, he actually had much more to say because he used his words much more efficiently. Third, Romney’s body language and speech patterns conveyed energy and engagement with his opponent. He appeared to be enjoying himself – even relishing the opportunity to give “his side of the story.” Don’t underestimate the power of poise and body language in these kinds of debates.
I suspect that Romney’s debate performance (or, perhaps more apropos: his “debate clinic”) will become a model for how a challenger should engage an incumbent. Doubles and singles may work in primary debates, but on the grand stage of the first Presidential debate a challenger needs to hit a home run, and I think Romney may have hit a couple. The objective of the challenger is to convince the American public that he can stand on equal ground with the sitting President in terms of leadership, intellect and ability, and I believe Romney succeeded.
Obama, Where Art Thou?
I will say a few words about Obama’s performance, and for the most part it left me perplexed. Obama and I do not agree on policy much of the time, but I have always had a high opinion of his speaking ability – and at certain times I have been in awe of it. I remember thinking in 2004, when Obama delivered that incredible speech at the Democratic National Convention, that the Republicans were in trouble if this guy ever decided to run. Unfortunately, I was right! Obama’s Grant Park speech in Chicago on election night 2008 was a spectacle to behold that may never be equaled. Where was this Obama during last night’s debate?
Admittedly, it would be very difficult to deliver in a debate format the same kind of grand, majestic oratory Obama is known for in his speeches. It just doesn’t work that well. But what about the same passion? What about the same energy? During the debate, Obama at times appeared perturbed and disinterested. He clearly was not enjoying himself. He conveyed the impression that he did not want to be there. He constantly looked down at the ground and never looked Romney in the eye. Obama should have known better. On top of that, his answers, while substantive, were meandering and professorial. They were hard for me to follow – and believe me, I tried.
CNN grand political poobah David Gergen opined that Obama’s sub-par performance was perhaps a result of living in the Presidential cocoon for four years. No one would dare speak to the President the way Romney did Wednesday night, and Obama was caught off guard. I do not agree with Gergen’s analysis. Obama is smart and savvy, and he knew exactly what to expect from Romney. I believe the problem is much more simple and logical. Romney has nearly twenty debates under his belt over the past several months, while Obama has not debated since 2008. Romney was better prepared and “in practice” – at the top of his game. As Will Ferrell’s version of George W. Bush once said, “Presidentin’ is hard,” and I have to believe that the daily responsibilities of the Presidency limited Obama’s preparation time. As a result, he had a bad debate. I am not offering an excuse for his poor performance, but rather a logical reason as to why it happened.
So what happens now? I think a few things. First, as mentioned above, Romney’s poll numbers will improve. How much and for how long, I do not know. Second, expect Obama to perform much better in the second debate. He and his advisors must know that a more aggressive approach is now required. Romney will not go down without fighting back hard. The second debate is a town hall format, which may provide a more comfortable environment for Obama to perform. Third, expect the media to begin formulating a “comeback kid” narrative, and then running with it once Obama delivers a better performance in the second debate. This angle will be irresistible to the media pundits.
What does all of this mean in terms of the who will win the election? I honestly do not know. If you think last night sealed the deal for Romney, then think again. Remember: Walter Mondale soundly defeated Ronald Reagan in their first debate, and we all know how that turned out. If you think Obama can just coast to an inevitable victory, think again. Mitt Romney is no John McCain and this is not 2008, and the Democrats better start realizing this. He will not go away easily or quietly. I suspect that the pathway to victory remains more attainable for Obama, but last night’s debate evened things out a bit, and keeps Romney in the race to fight another day.