This was a really poor choice by Mr. Obama and his campaign for two reasons. First, he’s not ahead by nearly that much in the presidential race. He doesn’t have a 10-point lead; he’s up by one or two. Second, as with the prevent defense in the NFL, Obama’s strategy allowed Mr. Romney to make slow steady progress in arguing his case against Obama.
The president said at the end that this was a “terrific debate” but he may have been the only one in the arena who believed that it was, at least for him. His weary cadence throughout the night was a sad contrast with Romney’s sunny intensity and articulate flow of figures and facts, even if some of the facts were questionable.
Obama doesn’t share a stage well. His gift is in soaring inspirational oratory. There may be no one better at it in his generation. Certainly Romney isn’t. But a debate requires a different skill set. It is unfortunate, perhaps, for Obama that the nation so recently saw Bill Clinton give a speech at the Democratic National Convention that was made up of debate-sized chunks of eloquent argument. When Obama explains something, he frequently sounds pedantic, while Clinton sounds like he’s having the time of his life.
Obama never tried to go on the attack against Romney. No mention of his labeling 47 percent of the nation as lazy shiftless folk who relish government dependency. No raising of women’s issues. No real effort to put the “flip flopper” label on Romney. When Romney has lost debates in the past, to Ted Kennedy and others, it’s when people expose his acrobatic position taking, and forced him to defend it. Why didn’t Obama bring back Kennedy’s wicked line about Romney being “multiple choice” on abortion?
That’s the way you attack Romney. You point out the numerous contrary positions he’s had in public life, and say that he’s a man who will say anything to win an election. A man without conviction or principle. This works to get Romney angry, and to get viewers to discount everything else he says.
Senior White House advisor David Plouffe defended the president’s “quiet dignity” to cable commentators in the Spin Room after the debate last night. But that’s not what undecided voters – even Obama supporters – saw. Where the Obama campaign might have been going for reserve and civility, those voters saw weakness and weariness. Basic campaign strategy says that the candidate who has a likability advantage is the one who has the better ability to go on the offensive. If Mr. Plouffe told Obama to be quietly dignified and avoid attacking Romney as a flipflopper, he should be fired.
We were told Romney would have clever “zingers” that would get the media’s attention. He didn’t. Rather, he had articulate brief attacks and points that were largely substantive. He told moderator Jim Lehrer that he liked PBS, he liked Big Bird, but he would zero out public broadcasting. He promised to use a simple test to decide whether to cut a federal program: Is this program worth borrowing money from China? To those few undecided moderates in the middle, those few remaining Perot voters, that type of symbolic elimination looks like courage, even though the number of dollars involved in those proposed cuts would be ridiculously small.
But that’s emblematic of the overall wisdom of Romney’s approach as compared to Obama’s. Obama said almost nothing that would appeal to someone who wasn’t already with him. Romney, by contrast, had many good lines that either appealed to the undecided, or responded to negative impressions wavering voters might have about him.
Even when Romney told howlers that were factually challenged, Obama was not really able to effectively challenge them.
As Democratic political consultant James Carville said, it looked like Romney wanted to be there, and the president didn’t. You can’t go before the American people, and give the impression that a debate – one of the core parts of the presidential campaign – is a chore you are above.
In truth, Romney didn’t score any huge points. There were no campaign-shifting lines or gaffes. But the overall night was almost all Romney. And you can expect that Romney will get a bounce from this.
Of course, there are still two more debates, and Romney has shown in the past an ability to make gaffes that could stem his own momentum. And Obama could shake off tonight, and go on the attack next time. But two more debates like this, and Obama could find himself relearning how very cold Chicago is in February.
Jeremy D. Mayer is an associate professor in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University where he also directs the masters program in public policy.