There is no question that Mitt Romney won this debate, and won it big. He was crisp, and he struck a good balance of being on the offensive without being offensive. Obama was hardly even there half the time. He seemed as if he just wandered in off the street.
Everyone’s writing and tweeting about Romney’s superior preparation and so on, and all that’s true, but that isn’t the real reason he won the debate so thoroughly. The real key? Romney did something last night that I didn’t expect him to do, and obviously Obama didn’t expect him to do. He suddenly became the moderate Massachusetts governor again.
In the process he disavowed or contradicted virtually everything he’s been saying for the past 18 months. He’s not cutting taxes for the rich? He’s the savior of Medicaid? He loves community colleges and would never think about cutting their funding? And on and on and on and on. It was unbelievable.
Virtually every major assertion he made last night about his proposals was false. The tax discussion was stunning. There must be footage of him at one of the early GOP debates saying exactly the opposite of what he said last night. He does not, in fact, support letting all people with preexisting conditions have access to health insurance. There’s a loophole in his position that would affect millions of sick people adversely. But he just says these things.
I will say in his defense, though, that he did arrive armed with some statistics. For example, his numbers about small businesses were very smart. He surely surprised Obama by conceding that only 3 percent of small businesses would be affected by Obama’s tax proposals, but then he rattled off those numbers about how many people those businesses employ.
Again, I can’t imagine his numbers really add up. If these businesses are by definition “small,” and if we’re talking only 3 percent of all small businesses, how can they possibly employ 40 percent of Americans or whatever that number was? But the point is that he repeatedly attacked in that mode, and as a result he, not Obama, set the terms of the debate almost all night.
Obama was terrible. I guess a part of me had a little bit of a feeling about this, even though I wouldn’t have (and admittedly didn’t) predict he’d be that bad. But when I went on MSNBC last Friday afternoon, I spent time talking about the pressure on Obama here while everyone else was focusing only on Romney. And yesterday afternoon, I wrote that Obama had to be aggressive and sharp and would be in grave error to think he could come into this playing prevent defense and win.
He was lackadaisical and dull. So many misstatements by Romney that he just failed to counter, like on Romney’s pre-existing conditions assertion. So many subjects he just didn’t bring up. Where was the 47 percent? The failure to mention that just left me slackjawed. And some of the things he did spend time on seemed just inconceivable decisions. The Independent Payment Advisory Board? Was he kidding? It was bad enough that talked about that once. But then, in rebuttal, he returned to it! I couldn’t believe my eyes.
That was the emblematic moment for me. In the health care discussion, he needed, as I wrote yesterday, to talk about that little girl who was on stage at the Democratic convention, the little girl who might not be alive today if her family’s insurer were permitted to impose lifetime coverage caps. But he spent a good five minutes on IPAB. That bores even me. I can’t imagine what a regular person was thinking.
The episode was emblematic of someone who didn’t prepare enough and didn’t spend enough time thinking about what he needed to accomplish in those 90 minutes. When you sit down to prepare for something like this you need to say, “Okay. Forget the questions, and forget what the other guy is going to say. What do I want to communicate? What two or three messages do I want to get across, and what are the words to convey them?” You must enter on that high plane and stay on it. Instead, Obama dove right down into the weeds and stayed there. Romney did the opposite. He was much better prepared.
And by the way, how awful was Jim Lehrer? Good God. That had better be his last one. But here, too, was something I had a little bit of an inkling about. Romney is an interrupter. Always was during the primary debates. Both Lehrer and Obama were inexplicably unprepared for this. Romney was quarterback and referee.
There’s no use pretending this doesn’t shake up the race. It surely does. How much, none of us knows. The Democratic spinners need to get busy on the fact-checking front. But this is mostly about Obama. Romney caught him totally flatfooted with the Rockefeller Republican move, and Obama didn’t know how to respond. If this is the new Romney, he'd better figure out how. END