The first presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, otherwise known as “The Denver Donnybrook,” offered the rarest of pleasures for attentive viewers: a series of utterly unexpected developments that could shock and shove the perpetually close campaign in dramatically new directions.
Among the evening’s most conspicuous surprises:
1. Romney came across as notably more youthful, energetic, and optimistic than his weary and piqued opponent—despite a 14-year age difference in Obama’s favor. The 51-year-old hope-and-change wonder boy looked worn out, uncomfortable, and embarrassed to be there, at times wrinkling his face as if suffering severe gastric distress. The unfortunate lighting and makeup combined to give him the skin tone of soggy cardboard. The 65-year-old Romney, on the other hand, seized the debate in its opening moments with a demeanor that seemed zesty, supercharged, straining at the chance for competition and challenge—rising to the occasion like the Olympic athletes he once encouraged in Salt Lake City. Were it not for the fact that his Mormon faith strictly forbids it, one might have assumed that the normally placid grandfather of eighteen had become hyper-caffeinated after gulping a series of triple espressos. One of the 200 listeners to my radio show who watched the spectacle unfold with me on the big screen at a local theater aptly commented: “After this, they can’t call him ‘Mittens’ any more. From now on, he’s ‘Boxing Gloves.’”
2. The great majority of the evening’s argument focused on Romney’s plans for the future, not on Obama’s first-term record or second-term agenda. The candidates quarreled and quibbled over Romney’s tax plans rather than Obama’s, and discussed GOP ideas to repeal and replace Obamacare as well as Dodd-Frank more than they evaluated the nature of the original reforms the president has already implemented. Surprisingly, neither of the candidates made significant mention of the administration’s controversial $800 billion stimulus package while Romney aggressively outlined his own five-point plan for economic recovery. The president apparently made a disastrous decision to try to pick apart his opponent’s suggestions rather than laying out a bold vision of his own. A newcomer to the campaign and its core issues (and the vast television audience for this event surely included a decent number of relative newcomers) might have concluded that an exhausted Obama had already used up his store of new ideas in his first term while Romney possessed a far more ambitious blueprint for the future. The president won the last election as the avatar of hope and change. The emphasis on Romney’s notions on how to fix Medicare, close the deficit, alter the tax code, and create jobs made it seem that he now offered a more meaningful prospect for change and therefore provided the nation with more hope.
3. While polls say that Obama holds a huge advantage over his wealthy adversary when it comes to “relatability” and understanding the concerns of ordinary Americans, in this first debate Romney (of all people!) played the compassion card more effectively. He spoke emotionally and repeatedly of the suffering of hard-working Americans, citing specific individuals he encountered on the campaign trail, and neither the president nor moderator Jim Lehrer ever challenged him over his notorious remarks (secretly taped last May) about 47 percent of the people viewing themselves as victims. When Obama tried to sound similar notes of concern about the struggles of frustrated voters, he rambled on about a young teacher in Las Vegas with 42 children in her classroom and no desks to accommodate them—without, apparently, realizing how this sad story undermined his previous boasts of national progress in upgrading education. For the president, the hard-luck stories that worked so well for him after eight years of George W. Bush (whose name never came up in the debate, by the way) can hardly be repeated after four years of Obama without implying some rebuke of the incumbent administration.
4. Finally, and most consequentially, Romney stole Obama’s banner as the candidate of compromise and conciliation, and the president will face a tough if not impossible struggle in trying to win it back. Even the incumbent’s most ardent admirers admit their disappointment that he failed so miserably in fulfilling his visionary promises to transcend Washington’s petty bickering and to inaugurate a new era of post-partisanship. Of course, most Democrats angrily blame Tea Party extremism for that failure and cite the openly expressed Republican determination to defeat and discredit the president at all costs. But Obama and his handlers obviously calculated that playing that blame game on the same stage with the genial and self-assured Romney would make the president look self-pitying and impotent, like a whiner rather than winner. Meanwhile, in one of the evening’s most devastating exchanges, the GOP nominee contrasted his own experience in winning near-unanimous support for health-care reform in an overwhelmingly Democratic Massachusetts legislature with the torturous passage of Obamacare without a single Republican vote in either house of Congress. If independent and undecided voters mean what they say in their professed yearning for more collaboration and less confrontation in Washington, D.C., then Mitt Romney undoubtedly made serious progress in securing their support.
Conventional wisdom, backed by historical polling data gathered by Nate Silver and others, always suggested that the challenger usually wins the first debate just by showing up and standing shoulder-to-shoulder as an equal with the presidential incumbent. But the initial Romney-Obama matchup raises questions about a whole new paradigm: what happens when the challenger not only stands up to the perceived invincibility of the charismatic, regal commander-in-chief but, for most of the evening, enthusiastically mops the floor with him?
Some Obama loyalists may hope that the evening’s misadventure will produce a wave of sympathy for the beleaguered and roughly handled president, or even a backlash against Romney’s unexpected bullying. They might even try to revive the dumb and discredited story of the teenage Mitt allegedly abusing a hapless gay classmate. At the very least, they can use the debate as a wakeup call to the Democratic faithful who, according to most polls, still lag behind ardent conservatives in their enthusiasm for the campaign ahead. If nothing else, the duel in Denver erased the notion that Obama true-believers can take his reelection for granted and coast to easy victory.
At the same time, a televised debate as one-sided as this one produces an inevitable impact on those tens of millions who watched it, and the hundreds of millions more who will hear about its outcome from various experts and advocates. With both sides striving mightily to motivate their core supporters in a closely divided nation, it can’t help the Obama cause when his admirers feel perplexed by his pained passivity at the same time that Republican partisans have been electrified, or at least shocked, by their guy’s unexpectedly energetic effectiveness.