No Debate Debacle

Romney Won the Debate but it Was No Game Changer

Obama’s lackluster performance obscures the strong points he scored with voters, writes Robert Shrum.

Win McNamee / Getty Images

Unhappily I was right: Mitt Romney could—and did—win the first debate. But I’m not eloquently panicked, as Andrew Sullivan was during his live blog of Obama’s defeat in Denver. The president could have put the election away; but it’s emphatically overstated, if entirely understandable, to suggest the opposite—that “[he] may even have lost the election” with “the wrong strategy … [at] the wrong moment.”

Yes, CNN’s instant survey showed Romney winning 67 percent to 25 percent; CBS reported a lesser landslide of 46 to 22. But after a few harrowing days for Democrats, something deeper than the numbers game may become clear. Obama actually advanced arguments, and elicited concessions from Romney, that can hold or move constituencies that are key to his success in November.

It was hard to see, or credit, anything like that as you watched the drama unfold on television. And it was drama. Romney’s was primarily a victory of performance art. He was energetic, aggressive, carefully respectful of the president, if not of the truth. He looked in command throughout the night, almost flawlessly spewing out well-crafted answers, rehearsed and memorized over the course of the most intense presidential debate prep in American history.

Obviously warned that the random thought that popped into his mind shouldn’t come out of his mouth, he only had two awkward, seemingly spontaneous moments. To back up the false charge that the president was the one twisting the facts, Romney ventured a lame joke suggesting that his sons had been habitual liars, so “I’m used to people saying something that’s not always true.” It was a cringe-inducing departure from script. (Or the advisors who recommended it had temporarily lost their bearings.)

Then there was the Romney’s promise to defund public television and roast Big Bird for Thanksgiving—which isn’t worth a decimal point in terms of deficit reduction, but sufficed as a pre-planned proof that he could be specific. But then the candidate, who dissed moderator Jim Lehrer in more ways than one, added with a self-satisfied smirk that he liked the decades-long face of PBS’s hallmark nightly news show—even if he was consigning him to video oblivion. Cringe again.

Lehrer, who is already retired, was not only a pushover, but an interrogator from the pre-modern age—and that too played to Romney’s advantage. The debate was supposed to be about domestic issues. But in Lehrer’s world, that didn’t include women, African-Americans, Hispanic and the LGBT community—or any of their concerns. The Republican, who had relentlessly pandered to extort his nomination from a skeptical extremist base, didn’t have to repeat or defend his voter-alienating views on questions ranging from immigration to contraception. I blame Lehrer for that, but not for losing control of the debate. I felt sorry for him.

There are signs in the research of Stan Greenberg, a Democrat who in my experience never shies from hard numbers or hard truths, that while Mitt prevailed in this first round, the debate was no game-changer. In a focus group of 45 swing voters, “the dial testing”—which rates the candidates as they speak—“and the follow-up discussions showed … Romney … improving his personal appeal and a number of important attributes.” But he didn’t crack the fundamental structure of the race: “[H]e mostly consolidated undecided voters who leaned Republican … He did not cut into Obama’s weak support.”

There’s a reason for this, a reason that was all but lost in the cacophony of regret and criticism directed at Obama even before the closing statements began. Romney’s strategy of ceaseless deceit—he doesn’t have a $5 trillion tax cut, Obamacare mandates the rationing of health services, and so on across the board—has become a fact-checker’s forest of fabulation. He will pay a price for that in coming days and coming debates. But for the Americans who tuned in, and plainly did decide Romney put on a better show, the more salient point is that the president came across better on the merits of things that matter in their lives—and that will matter in the voting booth. It was almost unnoticed by pundits, but Obama drew dividing lines that can make a decisive difference.

He dismissed Romney’s claim that Republican plans wouldn’t affect health services for today’s seniors. For example, Obama explained, seniors will pay $600 more a year for prescription drugs if Obamacare is repealed. The president also confounded Romney’s assumption that what counts here is just the reaction of those who are already retired---and instead spoke directly to 50 and 55 year olds. Do they want to replace Medicare with Vouchercare for private insurance—and pay over $6000 more a year for their coverage? The Romney-Ryan Medicare proposal is stunningly unpopular—and Romney left the debate firmly lashed to its leaden weight.

When Mitt denied that his tax cut costs $5 trillion, the president shot back that Romney’s “big, bold” idea was: “Never mind.” More significant was the charge that the Republican would raise taxes on the middle class to offset massive cuts for the wealthy. Romney denied it, but refused to specify what loopholes or deductions he would eliminate to finance his plan. Obama wondered if his opponent was keeping his plans “secret … because they’re too good” for the middle class. The natural reaction of people is to suspect that a politician who won’t tell them the details knows candor would hurt him because they would pay the price. That instinctive distrust applies especially to Mr. 47 percent.

On the economy and job creation, Romney essentially prosecuted his referendum strategy: If you’re dissatisfied with things, why not try me? The president raised the specter of a return to the policies that got us into this mess in the first place. He compared the Clinton record on jobs and growth to Bush’s. He was a touch professorial: “Math, common sense, and our history” prove that the Romney way won’t work. It would have been better if he had said it more memorably. The Republicans ask whether Americans want another four years like the last years. Obama could have asked: Do you want another eight years like the Bush-Cheney years—because Governor Romney has the same policies and the same advisors? But at a time when confidence is rising that American is recovering, Obama did sound a warning which resonates: We can’t afford to go back.

There were other places where Obama scored. For working class voters, especially in the Midwest battlegrounds, he assailed the tax incentives for shopping jobs overseas. Romney denied such benefits existed; if they did, he said, he needs a “a new accountant”—presumably because he would have taken advantage of them. This is not convincing—and it implicitly reinforces the dark side of the Romney image. The GOP nominee also concocted a claim that his health plan would cover pre-existing conditions—and Obama then explained why it wouldn’t.

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The president made the mistake of saying that he and Romney essentially agreed on Social Security—where did that come from?—even though Romney has supported privatization and his running mate has called Social Security a “collectivist system.” But more generally, if less remarked amid the jeremiads about Obama’s bad night, he laid down markers that will direct voters toward him. And his opponent, despite his aggressive tone, at times all but surrendered—for example, agreeing that he was for voucherizing Medicare, and then defending the idea.

The polls over the next week will tell us more about the real impact of the debate. If Greenberg is right, there will be some tightening as undecideds who likely would have voted Republican anyway take the debate as the occasion to make their decision. The greater danger for Democrats is if Romney has persuaded Americans that he cares about people like them. The president did put barriers in his way with retirees and those nearing retirement, with the middle class and blue collar workers.

In the end, people don’t vote for performance art. It’s a persistent myth that Kennedy won on image and Nixon won on substance in 1960, a conclusion based on the difference in opinion between voters who watched on television and those who listened on the radio. The latter were largely rural residents who in pre-cable days had no access to TV, and who already and overwhelmingly favored Nixon.

That doesn’t mean that performance is irrelevant—or, to paraphrase Romney, that the president can afford two more debates like the first one. Watching it, I shared Andrew Sullivan’s pain. But I didn’t just lament where Obama fell short; I noticed where he actually did some consequential things right.

Now the nation will intently focus on the encounters ahead, disproving the clichéd notion that the initial debate is the whole deal, or most of it. Next up is the vice-presidential face off, where Democrats have to hope Joe Biden faces down Paul Ryan. If I can venture another prediction, I think he will. And I think Barack Obama, a fourth-quarter player who’s at his best when the pressure is on—and it wasn’t before Denver—will be fully in the game.

The president will look to and prepare for the next rounds with a defiant attitude: Bring it on. And I bet he will bring his best.