Foreign Policy Debate

10.04.12

Why President Obama, Despite Scoring Points, Fell Flat in the Denver Debate

The president made some good arguments but was undermined by his lack of passion. Howard Kurtz on how he let Romney win the night.

On paper, Barack Obama didn't have that bad a night in Denver.

Unfortunately for him, debates aren't won on paper.

Watching the proceedings at the University of Denver, I didn't see the split-screen reaction shots that showed the president looking down and generally looking glum. I thought Mitt Romney had a stronger night but that Obama effectively punctured some of his arguments.

Didn't matter. What viewers at home saw was a poised and confident challenger and a long-winded incumbent giving discursive answers and never using his strongest ammunition.

Presidential debates are political theater, and Obama did not play the role of a leading man. Did his advisers not warn him about looking energetic and engaged? He was a 33 and 1/3 album while Romney spun like a 78 single. Former GOP chairman Michael Steele told me Obama came across as a cross between Al Gore sighing and George H. W. Bush looking at his watch.

Obama's scored a slew of substantive points, but that is being swept away in the torrent of postdebate commentary. The gang at MSNBC savaged the president with a sense of despair mixed with anger that their man had let them down. If Obama has lost Chris Matthews, he's lost liberal America.

How on earth did Obama let an hour and a half go by and not mention Romney's taped remarks about writing off 47 percent of the country as freeloaders, or bring up his career at Bain Capital? This wasn't a PBS seminar on the intricacies of the federal budget.

The media pile-on will change the way voters look at the debate, as happened after Gore's eye-rolling performance in 2000. Instead of recalling a debate in which Romney outhustled and outpointed the president, Denver will be remembered as a horrifying debacle for Obama. Being pounded in the press hour after hour changes the way an event is viewed in the rearview mirror. The Saturday Night Live parody can't be far behind.

But if journalists were doing their jobs, more of them would focus on the factual holes in Romney's performance.

After running on a major tax cut for a year and a half, Romney is suddenly emphasizing that the wealthy won't end up paying less because he will close loopholes and deductions—yet despite the president's prodding he wouldn't say what those were. So Romney has a secret plan to slash taxes without boosting the deficit he decries? Isn't that a big story?

The president also scored when he noted the irony of Romney vowing to repeal Obamacare while touting his health-care program in Massachusetts that was its model, insurance mandate and all. But that barely rated a mention in the media chatter.

As for Romney again promising to repeal the Dodd-Frank financial-regulation law but then saying he would keep parts of it, wasn't he trying to have it both ways? Is he now scrambling to the center?

Obama was a 33 and 1/3 album while Romney spun like a 78 single.

Romney's weaknesses were papered over by the power of his presentation. And he deserves credit for delivering a forceful critique without appearing excessively harsh. These are television events, and he rose to the occasion.

Perhaps the most damaging aspect of Obama's presentation is that he appeared to lack passion. Some voters may conclude that that he is out of energy and ideas for a second term, while Romney will undoubtedly get a second look from wavering voters.

A final thought about moderator Jim Lehrer, who is getting creamed for losing control of the debate and likened to a replacement ref. Lehrer's philosophy is to minimize his role and let the candidates go at it. Since they did that in spades, and on substance, what exactly is wrong with that?