Out on a limb, where the breeze is best:
The impact of the first debate is going to be bigger than we know. It’s going to affect thinking more than we know, and it’s going to start showing up in the polls, including in the battlegrounds, more dramatically than we guess.
It wasn’t just Mitt Romney’s strong performance. It was President Obama’s amazingly weak one. He’s never been punctured before. But by debate’s end Wednesday night, if you opened the window this is what you could hear: Ssssssss. The soft hiss of air departing from a balloon.
And—amazingly again—he did it to himself. He didn’t fight, he didn’t show, he wasn’t awake and hungry. He just said the same-old-same-old and let it go. He couldn’t even meet Mr. Romney’s gaze, never mind his arguments.
Is all this dispositive? Has it changed everything? No.
Balloons can get patched. Opportunities can be squandered. Luck can turn.
But this whole race is on the move again, it’s in play again, and it’s going to get fun.
But it’s going to get hot, too. And probably dirty.
* * *
America got its first, sustained look at the good and competent Mr. Romney. And it really was a first. He wasted his convention but showed up for his debate, and an estimated 58 million people were watching. Many of them were taking his measure for the first time. What did they see? He was confident, gracious, in command of the facts. He looked like a president, acted like one. He was easily the incumbent’s equal and maybe more than that, so he became for the first time a real alternative to the incumbent, a living one, not just a name on a ballot.
He has been painted as Richie Rich, a too-tightly-wound reject from the Republican Animatronic Presidential Candidate Factory. But again, that’s not who he was. He was a normal, smart adult, and he knew things both about America and about public policy. He’s supposed to be extreme, but he was not in the least extreme. He spent his time talking not just to Republicans or conservatives but to the American people, a huge and varied lot. He reminded many of them of something they’d perhaps forgotten along the way: We don’t like the Obama economy! We don’t like ObamaCare! We don’t like not having jobs! Nothing personal, but this didn’t work!
Forced by time constraints to be clear and concise in his statements, he was both. Here we must stop and note: The way Mr. Romney spoke in the debate was the real Romney. The faux-flowery “prairie fire of debt” one we hear on the stump is the not-real Romney. He flowers himself up on the stump because he thinks it makes him sound better. It doesn’t. The real Romney is the one who can communicate. He’s straight and direct and not fancy, forgivably jargony, but worried about America and sincere. That’s the Romney who showed up for the debate. Stay that guy!
* * *
All the books being written about the 2012 race will tell us the background and circumstances of Mr. Obama’s surprising and deeply unimpressive performance. For now what can be said is this is how journalists described it in real time: passive, listless, effete, detached, flaccid, dull-brained, disengaged, professorial. The last is unjust. Professors are often interesting. When Mr. Romney gave him the sweet-faced “You’re a cute little shrimp” look, and he gave it to him all night, Mr. Obama couldn’t even look at him. When Mr. Obama stared down and nodded at his notes it looked, as someone observed in an email, like his impersonation of a bored wife. Everything he said—everything—was something you’d heard too many times. Mr. Romney gave the president some openings. The president didn’t take them. Why? It crossed my mind he was playing possum. But possums wake up at some point.
Mr. Obama’s likability numbers are about to go down. It’s going to be a reverse Sally Field: You don’t like me, you really don’t like me.
Jim Lehrer has been criticized as an inadequate moderator. He was old-school and a pro. He didn’t think it was about him. How quaint. He asked questions, allowed a certain amount of leeway to both candidates, which allowed each to reveal himself, and kept things moving. Most of the criticism seems to have come from those who hoped Mr. Obama would emerge triumphant. Mr. Lehrer should not take it personally. Every shot at him was actually a warning shot aimed at the next moderator, Martha Raddatz. She’s being told certain outcomes are desirable.
* * *
The next Obama-Romney debate will be different. The same Obama will not show up. He’s been embarrassed. He’ll bring his LeBron. He’ll be tough, competitive, and he’ll go at Mr. Romney professionally and personally: “We know you love cars, you’ve even got an elevator for them!” This is where Sen. Rob Portman, in future debate prep, has to go. He has to play a newly energized and focused Chicago pol. But then he knows that.
Advice to the Romney campaign:
1. There’s no way to know if the debate changed everything but for the next few weeks Pretend it has. Underscore the gain in stature your candidate now enjoys. Makes things new, dress it up.
2. Everyone at podiums. Stop with the rambling man with the cordless mic on the empty stage. Forget the bales of hay and the tired local GOP activists in the background. Keep the candidate looking like a president. Weeks ago you threw together a stage with a podium, flags and deep blue curtains. It was for Mr. Romney’s Libya statement, which flopped. But the setting was good. Get it back.
3. Everyone in suits and ties. Enough with the high-thread-count, open-collar shirts with the sleeves rolled up. The presidency is not a TED conference. Especially for Paul Ryan. You know what we like to see in a 42-year-old man who wants to change a 45-year-old program? Grown-up clothes.
4. Maintain the rhetorical tone and tenor of the debate—sharp but respectful—Debate Romney, not Prairie Fire Romney.
5. Watch out for Big Bird. Putting the merits and realities of overall PBS funding aside, Mr Romney here gave a small gift to the incumbent. Democrats will merrily exploit it. Big Birds will start showing up outside Romney rallies, holding up signs saying “Don’t Kill Me!” Think this through.
6. As things tighten up, they will probably get dirty. It is a matter of conviction in both parties that the other side is more ruthless and brutal in its use of underhanded tactics. Both campaigns have probably been sitting on potentially damaging opposition research. Why? Because they don’t want to win that way. Political operatives say they hate oppo because they hate to lower the tone of the national discourse. The truth is, oppo is bad for business. The press goes into full Lascivious Puritan mode, spreads the dirt and then tries to nail the provider. When everyone knows a strategist won dirty, he becomes controversial, future clients shy away, and the mortgage on the house in Umbria goes unpaid. But losing is even worse for business.
Chicago won’t go quietly. Be ready for trouble and able of rapid response.