Simon Schama on How Obama Threw It All Away in the Denver Debate

Historian Simon Schama asks if the president can turn things around after the disaster in Denver.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP Photo

As the whoppers tumbled from his smiling lips, Pinocchio Romney’s nose grew so long that it was practically poking out the eye of his mournful opponent. But even had it struck raw cornea, the president would have politely removed the intruding proboscis to say, “Governor Romney, I probably agree that the nation could do with a good eye watering, though we disagree on the manner in which it would be administered,” or some such snappy retort.

Quick! Somebody call the Rejoinder-Implant Service before it’s too late! Which it already may be. Especially if Obama sticks with the prep team who did such a tiptop job in Denver. Maybe next time they’ll tell him: “It’s TV, Mr. President. They don’t actually turn off the camera pointing at you when you’re not speaking, so all in all, best not to be caught constantly chin down, nose in your notes. How about paying attention to what the other guy is saying, looking his way even? That way you get to think of a response.”

It’s hard to see how there can be a comeback. God knows there weren’t any on offer from the presidential side even when Romney had the brass to claim that he and his party weren’t actually proposing tax cuts for upper-income Americans! How about a reply playing on memories of a certain embarrassing video: “Well, Governor, if you’ll pardon the expression, that’s RICH coming from you!”

To be fair to Obama, he did make an effort to contest some of the more outlandish suggestions, like that somehow he alone had been responsible for deficit bloat rather than the calamitous policy of his predecessor and other Republicans. And he asked Romney to specify the closed loopholes and terminated deductions that are supposed to make good the revenue lost from tax cuts. But he did so in a tone of weary exasperation, letting Romney slither around the question rather than treading on his tail until he came up with answers like “mortgage deductions,” as in “end of.” Instead of the Clintonian chuckle of disbelief we got the sour grimace of silent reproof.

Some of us saw this coming, for truthfully, while he was often an astonishingly inspiring orator before the crowds, Obama was not an especially nimble television debater in 2008. Hillary often cleaned his clock, but he had already got the nomination numbers in the bag, and he lucked out in the election with his opponent’s choice of Sarah Palin as running mate and the unfolding of the Bush mega-meltdown.

What does this tell us? That Obama is someone who perhaps thinks of The People in an abstract rather than personal way—or who at least rises to the occasion best when summoned by rhetoric. But television isn’t like that. Its “debates” aren’t really debates at all, but a way of making a personal connection with millions of people as if there were just a handful of them in the room. Television feeds on bright little bursts of energy, like the hopped-up yapping that Romney has mastered along with the capacity of turning complex issues into a chummy infomercial. One of his lame prepackaged zingers was that as a father of five boys, he’s gotten used to people repeating an untruth in the hope that saying it often enough would make it true. It was directed at Obama’s and the Democrats’ shocking allegation that Romney and his party are in favor of tax cuts for the wealthy. But if Obama had been remotely on his game, it ought to have rebounded against Romney, for that is precisely what his party has proposed for three decades, all the while claiming against massive historical evidence that those tax cuts would pay for themselves by stimulating economic growth.

There was something else that went badly missing from what, if you are a Democrat, was a wretchedly dispiriting evening—and that was the opportunity of articulating a clear, strong, unapologetic affirmation of the principles by which the Democratic Party has tried to govern America since the New Deal: of compassion in times of hardship, of fairness when sacrifices are called for, of integrity and competence when cleaning up the wretched mess so often left by the other side,of realism in the face of wishful thinking, of a national community rather than a collection of self-interested individuals. Those are, in fact, the themes that were sounded loud and clear at the Democratic convention and have been reiterated by Obama himself many times on the campaign trail. But astoundingly he allowed Governor 47 Percent, of all people, to pose as a paragon of social understanding! That’s how staggeringly bad it was. And it was because he and his team thought it would be a smart move just to coast along on poll numbers that were already evaporating before the debate began.

Never has such a strong political hand been so needlessly, carelessly, calamitously thrown away.