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Friday, October 5, 2012

Dear Abby: Debate the Debate

On Wednesday night, President Obama and Candidate Romney squared off in their first of three debates. I watched the entire thing, which is a first for me. A reader asked for my reaction. She shall receive it, and so shall you.

Before I offer up my opinion, I feel the need to convince you of the bona fides of my dispassionate eye. I think this is because it grates on me when I am reading political commentary and it immediately becomes worthless to me, as I can see that it is nothing more than an expression of the writer's clear political bent. As a person who cares about politics but isn't a great fan of politicians, I don't want to consume Kool-Aid. I want to consume the bitter, acid elixir of facts and balanced analysis.

I think my cynicism regarding the political process is pretty clear. Because of the opinion I am about to offer up, it's also important for me to remind you that I think Mitt Romney has had some terrible missteps in this campaign. I also lean Democrat when it comes to issues of social policy. All that said, if I were forced to choose a party to align myself with, I'd choose a birthday party.

With that, and for whatever it's worth, here's my reaction to Wednesday night's debate.

The Candidates

As a matter of pure performance and delivery over the course of the 90 minutes of the debate, I think Mitt Romney "won" handily. I thought his tone was conversational but strong, his thoughts were organized, and his entire demeanor was assured and confident. So many pundits going into the debate were saying that this was Mr. Romney's chance to "look presidential," and I think that is exactly what he did.

Our actual president, on the other hand, looked removed, tired, and maybe even confused. I thought he stumbled right out of the starting gate when he tried to make a corny and jokey reference to the fact that he and Michelle were celebrating their wedding anniversary at the debate. (Mr. Romney acknowledged the unfortunate timing in his own opening statement, and he did a better job than President Obama on even that topic as well.) I thought every answer had a long and unnecessary wind-up, he at times seemed to be searching for words, and his "closing statement" seemed like a deflated apology. The man who finds his greatest strength in his power to "tell a story" played right into the hands of those who contend he can't talk unless he's reading from a teleprompter.

I think both men missed opportunities to make points that would really press their adversary. It's amazing, for example, that President Obama never even mentioned Mr. Romney's 47% comment. And if I were Mr. Romney, I would have challenged the President's references to his "reforms" of Wall Street by arguing that you can't call it "reform" if the banks continue to do business in the same way they were doing it when we got into the economic mess we got into/are in.

Mr. Romney needed to win that debate. His weeks-long gaffes pile-up threatened to derail his entire campaign, and the momentum seemed clearly on the President's side. Now the Republican machine is re-energized. That means the party and the candidate will be flush with confidence and with cash, and this whole thing starts to look like a real competition again.

The Voters

I think the only voting contingent that "won" after Debate #1 was moderate Republicans. Part of what made Mr. Romney so successful Wednesday night was that he seemed to be saying things he actually believed. And those things were not the conservative messages he tried to adopt to win the Republican nomination. They were the middle-of-the-road statements that allowed him to lead the state of Massachusetts. In fact, some of Mr. Romney's best moments were when he swatted down President Obama's repeated references to Mr. Romney's plan to reduce taxes by $5 trillion for the rich by squeezing the middle class, which Mr. Romney repeatedly insisted was not his plan at all.

The conservative Republicans that begrudgingly rallied around Mr. Romney were losers Wednesday night. While it seems they're caught up in the euphoria of his strong performance, they are probably quietly afraid that their worst fears are proving true: he doesn't actually side with them on the issues. He talked about strengthening the middle class, preserving some aspects of Obamacare, the importance of clear business regulations, and the like. He also talked about eliminating mortgage and charitable deductions.

The problem for all Republicans, then -- even the moderate ones I think "won" on Wednesday -- is that they don't really know who their candidate really is. The one from Wednesday night, or the one from the leaked video and months of campaigning? The latter was useful for winning the primaries, the former is the better candidate for the general election, but which one would show up at the White House? That's a scary gamble for all shades of Republicans.

I'd list the biggest losers to be undecided voters. Mr. Romney looked like an appealing choice for independents who think perhaps we need a fresh start, but in theory he could prove to be an extremist. President Obama in theory is an intelligent man and a poised leader, but he looked like he didn't know what he was doing on that stage, much less in the most important office in our country. I'd wager, then, that Debate #1 did nothing to help resolve the undecided votes.

The Result

At most, this debate simply made this a race again. How long it remains a race is anyone's guess. Just as the campaign seemed to turn on a dime Wednesday night, it can turn again, several times, between today and election day.

The people who will be most affected by these debates are the aforementioned undecided voters. If there is one thing Wednesday night confirmed, it is that people who are already loyal to a party, and therefore that party's candidate, will remain so, regardless of whatever happens on the debate stage.

Indeed, as I watched the debate, I also was following my Twitter feed. The reaction of those who are solidly, decidedly, blindingly in the camp of President Obama was amusing and telling. I watched them tweet things like "oh, shazzam!" after President Obama made a clunky joke, or complain about how Mr. Romney was "interrupting" the non-talking Jim Lehrer. They criticized Mr. Romney for things he didn't actually say, and kept on making jokes about how he has enough money to buy PBS or something. It's like they were watching the debate on mute.

Non-conservative Republicans criticize Fox News all the time for being the ultimate spin laboratory. I agree with those criticisms. It is always amusing, though, to watch how easily the shoe fits on the other foot. Even members of President Obama's administration have strained to explain, much less rejoice over, President Obama's debate performance. And the "liberal media" is unanimous in declaring round one to Mr. Romney. But if you followed the debate solely through my Twitter feed, you would have thought Mr. Romney spent the entire 90 minutes snarling, throwing stacks of money at the audience, or firing the help.

The debates aren't going to change the minds of those who have already made up their mind. Maybe they will help undecided voters make a decision. Those undecided voters likely care about more than taxes, though -- which is what Wednesday night predominantly focused on. If Mr. Romney wants to get those voters in his camp, all he did Wednesday night was make a step forward.  He isn't all the way there yet.

Maybe he's just, like, 47% of the way there.

This picture captures one of the rare moments from the debate when President Obama looked up from his notes.

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