Romney was the clear winner of the first Presidential debate tonight. He answered questions about his preparedness. He achieved what he wanted to achieve. He changed the narrative. He demonstrated remarkable control of data and detail. And he fought back effectively against the caricatures of him that have gained currency in American media and pop culture.
It was a substantive policy discussion, a debate worthy of this country. While it is the case, inevitably, that questions go unanswered and lots of faux facts are thrown out, the candidates did not focus on soundbites or scoring points against misstatements. They spoke in serious ways to serious issues.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not feeling triumphalist. Romney still has a long haul ahead. The President still has formidable advantages, and you can expect him to come out swinging in later debates. Both campaigns right now are combing through the debate record, looking for soundbites they can turn into attacks. The spin battle is critical, and more than once the “victor” of a debate has proven to regret his “victory” when a single comment became the focus of effective criticism afterward. But Romney certainly helped his cause tonight, and you could tell from the President’s expressions that Obama knew it full well.
Five first impressions:
1. Romney seemed big, confident, aggressive — while Obama seemed small, tired, defensive. Throughout the primary, the challenger was on stage with a cadre of other candidates and sometimes it seemed like an odd bunch — while the President is holding press conferences with world leaders and issuing executive orders. Although the challenger often comes into the first debate more prepared than the incumbent because of all the debates in the primary, the challenger typically has a stature problem. The challenger rarely possesses as much gravitas and authority as the incumbent. Tonight, Romney had more gravitas than Obama. Astoundingly enough for a challenger confronting a sitting President, Romney actually seemed more Presidential.
2. Even more amazingly, Romney seemed more historic. Obama no longer feels historic. The sense, so strong in 2008, that Obama was the representative of a movement that was accomplishing something epic and world-changing, has evanesced. But we’ve seen that Obama is not big enough to cause the oceans to recede. He’s not big enough to change the way Washington works. He’s not big enough to reverse the course of the American economy, much less the world economy. Romney, at least to my partisan eyes, inspired more confidence in the face of the world-historical challenges confronting us.
3. Virtually none of the conversation around this election has focused on what Obama would accomplish in the next four years. On the Right, it’s focused on examining Obama’s record. On the Left, and to a large extent in the popular media (but I repeat myself), it’s focused on Romney’s supposed shortcomings as a candidate. That’s why it was so important and so powerful that Romney showed the fatuousness of the caricatures tonight. He did not at all come across as a heartless, money-grubbing Machiavellian in a business suit. He came across as a man who cares passionately about this country, who wants to see everyone succeed, and who brings a tremendous amount of competency, character and intelligence to the challenge.
4. Ironically for a politician whom Clinton called an amateur and who battled against the former President’s wife for the nomination, Obama’s biggest asset in the debate was Bill Clinton. His strongest moment, I thought, came when he referred to the job growth during the Clinton administration, versus the job growth during the Bush administration after its tax cuts. Republicans in general, and Romney in particular, need to do better in their response to this point. I actually thought Romney’s response was a good one — look at the atrocious job record of the last four years — but a few other comments could help. It’s a frequent liberal talking point, but it’s easily undermined. I’ll explain how next week.
5. Republicans are going to feel a surge of hope after this debate. They were beginning to believe the self-perpetuating media narrative that Romney was not equal to the task. But polls appeared to be tightening leading into the debate, and I think Romney will see a bump. Independents have seen plenty of Obama for the past four years. If they were uncertain about him, he said nothing tonight that was new, nothing that would move people off the fence and into his camp. Romney did. Just as importantly, Romney’s performance will dampen the criticisms of the campaign and dampen the whispering that Republicans got the wrong guy.
Unlike the G. W. Bush debates, conservatives tonight were not finding themselves wincing at misstatements or shouting what they wished he had said at the television. It was nice to have a candidate who could make the case for conservative solutions. He was aggressive without being disrespectful, detailed without being wonky, conservative without being heartless. He took the battle to Obama, effectively rebutted the liberal myths about him and his policies, and made a coherent, moral, full-orbed argument for economic and national renewal.
Even Clintonite Donna Brazile admitted on ABC News: “Mitt Romney did himself a lot of good tonight…He came to change the script in this campaign and he was able to do that tonight.”
The next debate will be a whole different ballgame. The conversation will shift to other issues, and the listless and floundering Obama of tonight — who often seemed less like he was answering questions, much less setting out his program for the coming years, than just filibustering to keep Romney’s offense off the field — will come out more prepared and more aggressive.
But tonight, long-time supporters like myself can be pleased that the Romney they know, the Romney they’ve seen in private and in smaller group settings, showed up. All cheap shots and caricatures and cardboard cutouts aside, the real Romney stood up tonight. He did not seem over-programmed or over-messaged. At some point, you become so prepared and so in command of the material that you can simply be yourself. That was Romney tonight. This was the Romney long-time supporters like myself have been looking to see.
And it’s so good to see him again.