Debate Face-Off

Mitt Romney Offense Trumped Barack Obama Defense in Presidential Debate

While Romney took the fight to Obama, the president played it safe, avoiding clashing with the ideas advanced by the Republican nominee. Obama played not to lose—and lost, says Brett O’Donnell.

Eric Gay / AP

We learned last night that there are significant policy differences between President Obama and Mitt Romney, and that at least in this first debate, Romney is better at defending his policies than the president is. Both men avoided the temptation for the trite and gave us a detailed debate over the economy, tax policy, spending, entitlements, energy, and education, which exposed the vast differences between the two in one of the most substantive presidential debates in their history.

As an avid football fan, I have always questioned why teams that had played to win, and built seemingly insurmountable leads would suddenly shift to the “prevent” defense and play not to lose. Tonight the president played not to lose, played it safe, and lost. The president avoided clashing with the ideas advanced by Romney, and in doing so ceded ground on almost every front, from tax policy to spending to energy. Romney stayed on offense on almost every issue, while the president struggled to ever mount a meaningful counterattack. And audiences almost always judge who they believe to be the more aggressive debater as the victor.

In order for a candidate to be fully prepared for a debate he must develop a working knowledge of the issues, understand the message and the strategy for the debate, and be mentally prepared. The president’s team failed on the last two categories, leaving him without a message or strategy for the debate and seemingly ill-prepared to stand toe to toe with his challenger. Romney started with purpose, won the first 30 minutes of the debate, and never “took the bait” from the president in relentlessly pounding home from the beginning of the debate until its end that the path we are on now, in his words “trickle-down government,” had failed.

Romney overwhelmed the president on the economy, demonstrating a workmanlike command of great detail of economic facts, and he kept litigating those facts throughout the debate. For example, he claimed during the debate on energy that the president had given $90 billion to green energy projects at the expense of 50 years of what other energy sectors could have received and then later used that same figure to argue that amount could have hired 2 million teachers.

Voters also will pay attention to the style in which each argument was delivered, and Romney’s respectfully aggressive tone struck just the right balance and stood in stark contrast the president’s disengaged, sometimes disrespectful, and even disinterested appearance in the debate. At times the president seemed more interested in debating the moderator, Jim Lehrer, and less interested in engaging Romney on the issues. This debate presented a President Obama we seldom see—a dark, gloomy, tired president—a dramatic contrast to the Candidate Barack Obama who inspired voters with hope in the midst of economic calamity. Romney began the debate with humorous congratulations on the president’s anniversary, joking that he was “sure this was the most romantic place you could imagine here—here with me.” The president, in contrast to four years ago, when almost all of his rhetoric was directed at the promise of the future, began with a dim recitation of the past four years.

By the middle of the debate, the president seldom would even acknowledge Romney’s presence, choosing instead to stare down at as his notepad while the governor continued to advance his case against the president. By the end of the debate, their body language made it clear that the governor knew he was winning and the president knew he was not—even nodding in agreement with Romney at points in the debate. And while the president started with the best line of the first 20 minutes of the debate, “his big, bold idea is ‘never mind,’” his tone turned from sharp to cutting, arguing with the moderator for five seconds of time and tersely deriding Romney’s first day on the job as “busy.” One of Romney’s best moments came when he disputed the president’s characterization of his education policy, telling the president that while he was entitled to his own plane and house, he was “not entitled to his own facts.”

The new format also seemed to favor Romney. Though the president talked about four minutes more than Romney, the governor made the most of his time, was able to guide the debate without being argumentative with the moderator, and almost always insisted on having the final word in each segment. The extended time blocks allowed for a healthy back and forth on the issues, which Romney seemed more comfortable in navigating.

But it’s too early for Romney’s team to “dance in the end zone.” A wise sage once warned me, you’re never as good as you think you are when you win, and you’re never as bad as you think you are when you lose. The next debate holds pitfalls for both as they interact directly with voters. For the first debate, Romney not only won the exchange, but more important, won the battle over ideas in the debate. But whether or not this will change the narrative of the election remains the decision of voters.