Well in short, the President lost, and he lost hard. Being an incumbent invites attacks on your record but Obama seemed content to sit on his haunches for the majority, whereby Romney, like him or not (and I’m no fan of the flip-flopping git) showed up to play. He continued the greatest lie of recent American politics by referring to Obamacare as a government takeover of healthcare, which it isn’t (seriously, if you’re in doubt about this, read the fucking law), got it wrong when he said half of college graduates can’t get jobs (it’s closer to 25%) but the truth is most of these facts won’t be checked by most of the people who’ll simply see the quotes repeated ad nauseum until the next debate.
The key to who wins and loses in a debate like this is the performance. Despite the world and his wife (to say nothing of the candidates) saying they want a detailed, policy-led discussion on the issues, what works are soundbites. What doesn’t work, as the President so clearly evidenced, is nodding when your opponent says something, looking down when he’s criticising you or refraining from attack. He played it so safe he essentially held the door open for Romney to get back into an election that was by all rights, over.
Forty seven percent. Cayman Islands. Tax returns. Switzerland. All phrases we might legitimately have expected to hear and yet the President refrained. It might get him some good press as the proverbial ‘bigger man’ but Romney has made enough gaffes over the last year to allow a college student to beat him with adequate prep and the right strategy.
The real take-home of the debate though? Jim Lehrer is dead, having been flattened by an election bus. As moderator he failed completely, allowing both candidates (with the Governor arguably being the worst offender) to filibuster, asking open ended questions that could never have been adequately answered within the strict time limits (that were supposed to be) enforced upon the candidates, and a shame-ridden finale in which he stopped the candidates to remind them there were only three minutes left, and took up one of them talking bollocks.
Romney went on the attack tonight, and he looked presidential doing it. His facts weren’t all right – some of them were flat-out wrong, but this was like watching sunday league rugby where one team has practiced all week and the other got shitfaced in the pub last night. Can a debate swing an election? Well, yeah. Will it swing this one? I doubt it, but Romney will almost certainly get a bump in the polls and now Obama is on the back foot.
Or is he? The next debate is the VP snoreathon and no one with a social life ever cares about that. But there are two more to come for these guys. The economy was always going to be Obama’s toughest sell, and a debate focused on domestic policy was always going to be about the economy, but that’s done with now. Both sides attempted to make their candidate the underdog going into this first debate, but that was never going to work for the President. Ignore the fact that he hasn’t been onstage with an opponent since McCain, this man addresses the world and is known throughout for his oration. So the only way for him to ‘win’ this one as opposed to have Romney ‘lose’ it, would be for him to smash it out of the park. Anything less is just ‘as expected’.
Now though, he IS the underdog. Romney is king of the debates and will be for the next two weeks. We’ll tune in next time expecting more of the same, namely him going on the attack and Obama sitting back and taking it.
What if this was just a great play though? What if it was all deliberate? What if Obama’s team wanted him to hold back so he didn’t do too well. So the media spent two weeks focusing on how well Romney had done. What if the plan is to go for the knockout in round 2? Wishful thinking? Maybe it was just a bad performance. Whatever you think of Obama’s presidency though, there’s no denying his campaigning skills and his team is very good. Maybe, just maybe this is all part of the plan.
And maybe Jim Lehrer will still be hosting debates in four years time.