Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have both been running for president since about 2006, and have participated in a lot of debates in that time. I think this was Mitt Romney’s best debate in that entire time, and Barack Obama’s worst. Obama was the more surprising. He was weaker than usual in every way–poor on substance, poor on style, very tired; he missed opportunities and failed to defend himself. I personally think the president’s record is in most respects indefensible, but presumably Obama doesn’t agree with that. He didn’t show it tonight.
Romney was less surprising because he has always been a good debater, but he was just superb tonight. Forceful and clear, a good balance of details and generalities, he missed very few opportunities (I thought he could have scored even more points on Obamacare, but he did score some solid ones; he could have offered a clearer defense of his Medicare proposal from the false charge of shifting costs, but he was effective on Medicare on the whole), and he came across very well. He was strong where he has often been weak–on policy specifics (up to a point), defending his tax proposal, a clear contrast on the role of government. And he was in control–he basically talked about what he wanted to talk about, and didn’t talk about what he wanted to avoid, and Obama more or less let him do it.
This allowed Romney, in a forum where more voters were watching than any other, to basically deny outright the key charges being made in the billion-dollar ad campaign against him, and the president didn’t push back. It allowed him to put before the country some of the key failures of the last four years without the president doing much to answer. And it allowed him to offer himself as a capable, experienced executive with specific ideas for solving the key domestic problems facing the country, while the president failed (by barely trying) to paint a different picture of him. A voter subjected to the torrent of ads against Romney for months who then watched this debate would have to now at least question everything the Left says about Romney. You just can’t buy that kind of effect.
With just a few exceptions in tonight’s debate, Obama’s strategy seemed to be to treat this as an open-seat election rather than to behave like the man who is the president today and has been for four years. He talked about how people are suffering, how teachers are getting fired, how the middle class is being squeezed–all of which begs the reply: Why hasn’t the president done something about it? Romney offered that reply once or twice. And Obama talked about his own agenda as a set of proposals–essentially the same proposals he made in 2008. At one point he even said his deficit-reduction plan was on a website somewhere for everyone to see. Well anyone can put things on a website, but the president can get legislation passed–or at least a president should be able to. This president hasn’t managed to enact popular legislation, and he haspushed throughsome very unpopular legislation. His closing statement corrected this tendency a bit, and offered a defense of his record (or rather, a description of his record as he wants it understood, which was really his job tonight), but until that point he was basically running as he did in 2008 and trying to avoid defending himself. I think it just didn’t work.
Obama did employ some of the deceptions and distortions he has been wielding on the stump. Everything he said about Romney’s Medicare proposal was simply outright false, for instance. But he actually did less of that than I expected, especially after his attempt to demagogue on taxes failed as Romney simply denied the charge. It seemed like he was trying to avoid being aggressive.
On the whole, Mitt Romney looked like a guy who wants to be elected president tonight, and Barack Obama looked like a guy who wants to be left alone. There is a way for each of them to get his wish. Tonight doesn’t mean that will happen of course, but it probably does make it a bit more likely.
The polls of the past few weeks suggest this election is going to be decided by turnout–that it’s going to be a very close election and a subtle shift in who chooses to show up could well determine the outcome. That means it was extremely important for Romney to re-energize his supporters, and to combat the sense (being carefully and ably cultivated by the Democrats and some in the press) that Obama had it wrapped up and everything was going terribly for the Republicans. That sense was not well founded, on the whole, but in an election like this it can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It seems to me that Romney has ably undermined it tonight–forcing the press to talk about Obama underperforming and Romney looking strong just when people are paying attention. That means he did what he had to do and then some.
Yuval Levin is Hertog fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and editor of National Affairs.