Blame Obama’s Lousy Debate on John Kerry!

Obama’s tepid debate performance isn’t entirely his fault. Matt Latimer on the president’s peculiar choice of surrogates—and why he needs Clinton now more than ever.

Streeter Lecka / Getty Images

If you did not watch Wednesday night’s presidential debate, here’s how bad it was: the Democrats are now looking to Joe Biden to turn things around.

Yes, the latest Mitt Romney was one of the best models his technicians have produced yet, free from technical glitches and referencing real Americans he’d met on the campaign trail so often you’d think he might actually remember them. For the first time in a while, Romney’s hair and complexion looked normal. He was a little petulant, but less so than usual. And he ran all over moderator Jim Lehrer, who a friend of mine cruelly, yet hilariously, compared to Admiral Stockdale. But the real problem last night was, of course, Barack Obama—who looked like he was still sitting in a room somewhere listening to a John Kerry monologue. (“I know the feeling,” says Teresa.)

In the debate’s aftermath, Michael Moore began the blame game over Obama’s bloodless performance by honing in on Senator Kerry. In truth, one does have to wonder what possessed the White House to select the guy who lost to George W. Bush as their “debate coach.” I suppose if the Obama campaign really expected Thurston Howell III to show up on stage last night—the rich and oblivious character they’ve created in their campaign ads—than Kerry is as good a choice as any. This after all, was the guy who praised the Ohio State Buckeyes in Michigan, managed to call our troops in Iraq “uneducated,” and made one of the biggest political gaffes of all time (“I was for it before I was against it”). Oddly, the guy who sounded most like Kerry last night was Obama, ponderous and lecturing. In fact, at his worst Obama is more like Michael Dukakis, the passionless, know-it-all technocrat, who famously answered a question about his wife’s theoretical rape and murder as if he were debating a new study on the benefits of ethanol.

The idea that the Mitt Romney who showed up in Denver would be their best-case scenario demonstrates the depth of arrogance and overconfidence within the president’s team. That overconfidence was exacerbated by nearly every media outlet in America declaring the election over and Romney an almost certain debate loser. The day of the debate, an article mused about what might happen if Romney completely flopped. It was a good question, and certainly a possibility, but the same apparently was not asked of President Obama. By anyone. Obama thus went into the debate with enormous expectations. A large majority of Americans polled before the debate assumed Obama would win it handily, which made his loss—and it was a loss—even worse.

The president would have been better off having a Magic 8-ball as a debate partner. I mean that only partly in jest. One of the advantages of being someone like Mitt Romney is that he can be anything to anybody on any day. He changes his views with such abandon that nearly every one of his Republican opponents out and out called him a liar. But he got away with it. That’s how good he is. John Kerry is a liberal Democrat committed to a certain set of ideas. He doesn’t know how to sound like a Tea Partier one day and a gay-rights activist the next. He’s the world’s worst flip-flopper.

What the president needs as a debate partner is a guy filled with ambition, someone desperate to please, able to recite facts and figures as if they mean something while biting his lip, talking about his “Mama,” and trying to sound as “average American” as possible. A guy who has no problem abandoning any position if it helps his chances, and gets away with it by pretending he hasn’t changed a thing. Don’t know who I mean? Here’s a hint: he’s on the phone right now in Chappaqua telling anyone who’ll listen how much better he (or Hillary) would have done last night. Yes, bring Bill in as debate coach. He might be helpful. But hey, at this point maybe Obama ought to ask for pointers from Vice President Joe Biden. He can’t foul things up any worse for the ticket. Right?