Five Surprising Responses to the First Presidential Debate

Five Surprising Responses to the First Presidential Debate October 4, 2012

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.

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  • Good analysis and helpful perspective. It was quite a night for Romney and I think it elevated his standing considerably. Obama seemed asleep the first half, and then not sharp/crisp most of the second half. Won’t happen again, but it has changed the race that it happened tonight.

    • LaurieK

      Everyone is saying Obama will do better in the other debates, as if it’s a foregone conclusion. But I fail to see why this is true. He has nothing to his record that is defensible. His foreign affairs record is worse than his domestic one, and the only concrete plan he has laid out for his next term is to be more “flexible” with our enemies. He simply has nothing to stand on, none of his familiar props (‘prompter, compliant press) that usually bail him out in a debate format. Nor does he have the mental discipline that Romney, whatever his faults, has always been able to rely on. This whole “comeback kid” narrative that everyone seems to think is imminent doesn’t really seem based in any kind of reality.

      • richard40

        We dont know for sure that obama will do better, but I know for sure Obama cant do much worse. If he does he is toast. I think next time, even if Obama loses, but does not lose as badly as he did this time, the MSM can portray it as a huge improvement, and exceeding expectations.

      • Laurie, I’d like to point out that Barry is a very competitive man, and he hates to lose. He lost this debate because -to a great degree- he has become unused to flat-out opposition, either from the press or from fellow politicians. That could well change.

        This doesn’t mean he well be greatly improved during the next debate, but the Romney camp had best make that assumption. Professor Reynolds has (rightly) constantly harped on the saying “Don’t get cocky, kid!” Barry quite likely had a cocky attitude walking into the first debate; he might have even believed the Dem propaganda about Romney; always a capital mistake. Another thing to remember about the President: he’s a very proud man; some would say arrogant. People like that tend to take losing personally.

        It all depends on how mentally flexible the President shows himself to be.

  • M. Grant

    I think if you support Romney, he did as you said – good. I liked the sparring match. But if you support Obama, then you would be saying how Mitt chomped at the bit, how his eyes watered, how he kept repeating points that both went over time and were obviously prepared sound bites without much substance. He’s offering an alternative to Obama, that’s true. But is it an alternative to the extreme recession Obama inherited from the Bush years? I thought Obama looked cool, and expressed the perspective one gets from 4 years in office, entertaining all views and trying to be pragmatic about a president’s powers, which are limited.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Even Obama’s fiercest supporters seem to be acknowledging that Romney did extremely well. It’s a rare moment of bipartisan agreement!

      • richard40

        Yes, when CNN, MSNBC, Bill Mahre, and Michael Moore all agree that obama lost the debate, it is pretty clear that Obama lost the debate, and badly. The only ones that still claim obama did OK are the really far gone kool aid types.

    • MarkB

      It is in the nature of partisan politics that Jesus Christ himself could stand on the stage and deliver dictates from G*d on high and a fair number of folks from the other party would snipe about how he seemed “too extreme” or his garment looked uncomfortable. So, yes, if you are in the tank for Obama, you probably think he did fine. There is simply nothing the Romney could say that would ever sway you because you aren’t open to being swayed. Problem for Obamaphiles is: lots of people don’t consider him all that worthy of unfailing admiration. And when *those* people saw the debate, they mostly lined up behind the candidate who appeared to be more in control of the facts and the more natural leader: Romney.

    • “Prepared sound bytes” vs. the same old recycled talking points (with maybe a little updating – “100,000 teachers” instead of “100,000 cops” a la Clinton). Such as “tax breaks for sending jobs overseas”, I mean, where’s the beef? Mr. Obama sure didn’t have the beef on that.

      And as for the talking point of the “inherited Bush recession” … that was the chickens of Progressive housing/finance and energy policies – some instituted before Mr. Bush and kept in place thanks to Democrat obstructionism, others where Mr. Bush took a page from the Progressive playbook in an attempt to solve socio-economic problems that the states are really better suited to solve (as Mr. Romney described last night) – came home to roost.

      The “Bush years” included two years of Democrat control of Congress … and all they did was promote the same old trickle-down government policies that failed us in the 1970’s and are failing us today, in the four years that the #TricklerInChief has been in office.

      Not to mention the biggest chicken of all … the REAL “outsourcing” problem we face, that Mr. Romney began to address last night. Almost every other problem we face, is a symptom of this one:

      • PD Quig

        If you read Obama’s books, you quickly realize that he has been getting over by spouting bullsh*t his entire life. He has spent his life carefully crafting his image. It comes to mind that even he might not know who the hell he is anymore.

        • igorvitch

          Nasty, crass and virtually meaningless comment. Nice going.

    • R.C.

      Anyone can inherit a recession, even a bad one.

      But few can do so much to deepen and prolong it as Obama has done. The last man to take a tight spot and so exacerbate it was FDR, who was worse than Obama, in that he probably prolonged the Great Depression by a solid three years.

      How to arrive at that judgment? Well, we have to be a bit more sophisticated in our judgment of causation than the person who says, “Well, whichever President is in power when a recession starts, it’s his fault” …an attitude of political economics with all the sophistication and maturity of the phrase “he who smelt it, dealt it.”

      Given that a recession takes place at Time X, on whose shoulders do we place the blame? Whoever’s president at Time X?

      No. Only a person who understands neither American government nor economics would say that.

      First, mild recessions (the “V-shaped” recessions from which we rapidly rebound) occur cyclically as a mere symptom of the cascade effect in the crowd psychology of markets. They are a sign of the metastability of a healthy, functioning market. They are nobody’s “fault.”

      Okay, okay, you say: What about severe recessions? The “U-shaped” or “L-shaped” ones like the one we’re currently in? That which began in the last few months of the Bush (43) Administration fits this description. Those are not healthy; they can be someone’s “fault.”

      So, in the case of a severe recession, do we assign blame to whichever president is in office?

      Well, no; not unless that president had near dictatorial capacity to implement his policies; which is to say, not unless his party was in control of Congress and pushback from the media or from other constraining outside influences was negligible. Also, assuming that he did have near-dictatorial policy freedom, the policies would have to be (a.) relevant to economic matters, (b.) plausibly economically harmful, and (c.) different from those of the opposing party, which would plausibly have been less harmful.

      And finally, to the extent we’re aware of the causes of the recession’s deepness, those would have to be policies that didn’t predate that president’s term in office, or, if they were, they would have to be policies the president didn’t try to fix.

      Applying these more realistic rules to the current economic mess, what do we see?

      Well, part of the reason for the depth of the recession is the collapse of the housing market. But, the causes of that are numerous. They include the childlessness of wealthy Germans (who threw capital at U.S. capital markets in pursuit of good investments, which were too few on the ground, resulting in the production of impossible-to-value derivative securities in the homes market and the current crop of rehypothecated vapor-securities, like China’s “Ghost Steel). They include the economic aftereffects of the political corruption of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (thank you, Barney Frank). They include the moral hazard of bail-out schemes secured by the revolving door between Wall Street investment banks and Federal offices.

      It is impossible to lay all that at the feet of G.W.Bush. Given the kinds of factors involved, a president could have been little more than a bystander. This is particularly true of a lame-duck president half-way through his second term who’d just lost Congress to the opposing party; they would control the agenda more than he. That’s the way our system works. If anybody could have taken belated steps to veer away from the recession, it would have been Nancy Pelosi…and she obviously had no interest in joining G.W.Bush’s (unheeded) calls to reform Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac…calls which were correct, but probably came too late, anyway, even if he’d been a dictator!

      Okay, okay, you say: But couldn’t G.W.Bush have implemented policies which (a.) were Wall Street-friendly enough to restore liquidity to financial markets, and (b.) Main Street-friendly enough to get that liquidity to affect the little guys in average American communities?

      And the answer is: No, he couldn’t. He was a lame-duck, with the opposing party having just seized firm control of Congress and thereby, of the domestic agenda. And their agenda was precisely the opposite of what could have helped to avoid such a deep recession in the last two years of the Bush presidency.

      Fine, you say. But what about before that, when Bush did have a Republican Congress?

      Ah, there I have some sympathy. Had G.W.Bush been pushing for reform to prevent the formation of unvaluable derivatives or to fix Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as early as, say, 2003, then the housing-bubble might have begun a gradual deflation by 2005 or 2006, making the ultimate crash less severe and the ultimate recession less deep. The war-footing of the U.S., post 9/11, probably had a lot to do with it: Nothing like a major terrorist attack and a pair of major land wars to distract a presidency. But we also have to acknowledge that apart from Brooksley Born’s warnings in 1998, few people were aware of the overexposure danger of derivatives until Leahman Brothers collapsed in 2008. By the time this event demonstrated their dangers, they were already too widespread. Alan Greenspan might have been smart enough to catch it; but he didn’t, as he freely admitted later.

      Who, then, to blame? The terrorists, the European cash-flush investors, the derivatives brokers, Barney Frank and Pal, Greenspan? People who just overbought in the housing market? Bush’s name should be in there somewhere, but his is probably the least. He talked about reforming Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but never did enough to push it past the objections of Democrats and make it happen.

      So much for Bush. What about Obama?

      Well, Obama inherited a recession, but he also had a Democratic Congress, and a historic level of public willingness to view him as a great leader (because of being the first black president), and an utterly servile media. He had a free hand. The recession did not start under him, but he could have done tons of things to alleviate it.

      And there’s the problem. Nearly every move Obama has made since being in office has been of a character which would predictably worsen the recession. He had relatively unchecked power, and used that power either to harm, or on irrelevancies, instead of heal.

      He lost control of Congress two years later, of course. Had he been planning to do anything which would help the economy, that would have mattered; it would have absolved him of responsibility for failing to help, if he suddenly lost the ability to do so. But he hadn’t been planning anything which would help; no policy he was then espousing was of a character that could help. His primary agenda was Obama Care, and no sane person thinks that that would help, economically.

      The attitude of small businesses is revealing: They are sitting on their hands, refusing to hire, refusing to expand. Some of them are plainly saying that if Obama is re-elected, they plan to either downsize significantly or close their doors, because they will not be able to afford to remain in business.

      I’m out of time for continuing this long discourse. But I hope folks will look realistically at the economy and be informed voters. That means understanding real information about the economy, the powers of the presidency, and the powers of Congress. If we’re to assign blame, it ought to be on an informed basis.

      • Mike

        Thank you, R.C., for this very informative and helpful analysis. I think your points are extremely insightful.

      • From 2003 to 2005, the Bush Administration made efforts to work with Congress to restore a prudent level of regulation into the housing-finance markets. They were obstructed by the combination of a few Republicans with the Democratic minorities in Congress, which were led by Chris Dodd and Barney Frank, who told everyone that things were just fine.

      • M. Grant

        Look, I voted for Bush. I believe in giving Obama his due. But you sure have to go quite a ways to try to explain away and apologize for the recession. Of course it wasn’t all President Bush’s fault. But it’s really not fair to not apply the same level of care in examining the Obama record.

    • Jay

      Obama supporters may want to make untrue statements to try to rewrite history (things like: “Mitt chomped at the bit”, “his eyes watered”, “he kept repeating points”, “that he went over time” and spoke in “prepared sound bites without much substance” but the fact refute all of those assertiongs.
      1- Mitt was gracious but passionate. If he had tears in his eyes, I didn’t see them. And so what if he did? It means he’s not heartless, like Obama kool aid kids claim.
      2- The only points that he kept repeating were when Obama made statements about what Romney would do, and so Romney had to re-state that NO he would not. He was responding to Obama spin.
      3. Over time?? 42:50 to 38:20 in favor of Obama. Obama hogged the clock, but Romney got a lot more done.
      Anyway, like others have said, if you’r in the tank for Obama, nothing Romney does or says will matter at the end of the day. Have a good one.

      • Timothy Dalrymple

        Thanks, Jay.

  • Jeremy Forbing

    I don’t think the word “surprising” is appropriate in this context, given your long and unwavering belief in Governor Romney and his abilities. I think he performed well in the debate, and better than the President. But even if he had done much worse, I would’ve expected variations on most of these same observations from you. While I disagree with many things in your responses, I think we both could’ve predicted that I would, and that is not the point I am making here. What strikes me is that, while many people view candidates they love through rosy-colored glasses, your starting point here would seem extreme even from a direct surrogate. Pretending to be surprised comes off as a bit disingenuous, especially when it ends in you saying that the candidate we saw tonight is the one you saw all along.

    • Bobby B.

      Perhaps a reading of The Fox and the Grapes would be in order.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I actually am surprised. I thought Romney would hold his own, but I was not expecting Obama to come across as poorly as he did. After all this time in which it seemed like Romney was over-programmed and struggling to be himself and show in public what he showed in private, it was both surprising and welcome to see him emerge and do so well.

  • Frank

    If the choice was not clear before the debate it’s crystal clear now. No more Obama and Mitt would make a great president!

  • Lorenzo F.

    I’m not surprised at all. The Democrats and media told us Kerry was so brilliant, and it turns out the Yale frat boy got better grades and got into Harvard business school and got an MBA, while Kerry neglected to meet the deadline for Harvard Law and had to go to Boston College instead. They told us that Obama was also brilliant, the light bringer, the smartest man in the room, and a world-class orator, and he turned out to be an empty suit without a teleprompter, with the stock rhetorical phrases and debating tricks of an everyday BS artist. Obama may be more aggressive in the next debate, but he won’t be any better. He’ll only look even less presidential and seal his fate.

  • Looking at my twitter and facebook feeds, the biggest thing people are complaining about is Big Bird being defunded. I have always thought single issue voting was strange, but this certainly takes the cake. Romney’s detailed statement of how he would look at each program was succinct and honest.

  • Jon Davis

    Answer to #4: I partied with Bill Clinton, I knew Bill Clinton, Bill Clinton was a friend of my wife. Mr. President, You are not Bill Clinton.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Hey, you stole one of my lines!

  • Noel

    Well the man who would be President was debating a man who his church believes is a descendant of Cain (cursed). Brigham Young said Negroes were born to be servants and could not rule over white people. I am sure many viewers in the backwoods of Utah had their Journal of Discourses with the relevant pages of Brigham Young’s sermons highlighted.

    • Which is more significant to the nation … the fact that Mitt Romney might be wearing what some have called “magic” underwear, or the “magic” of Barack Obama that has the demonstrated power to make trillion$ disappear?

      As long as Mr. Romney upholds the principles of rights-respecting governance delineated in our Declaration of Independence, and does so respecting the mechanisms and limits of the Constitution, I don’t think his faith is a threat to this nation … not to mention that the Latter-Day Saints have moved beyond those hoary old views of race that you have dredged up.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      What Brigham Young said was the exact same thing many others around him, including orthodox Christians, including many pastors and Christian leaders, said at the time. These are not “canonical” statements from Young, and the whole narrative about the mark of Cain and blacks as the descendants of Cain predates Young and was, again, pretty common in Christendom. It’s perfectly legitimate to criticize the LDS Church for taking so long to remove the policies against blacks in positions of leadership, but let’s be fair when we’re describing things that were said in a very different time.

      • matt

        Do you see it as perfectly legitimate to criticize Romney for belonging to a church that was officially racist in its dogma until he was 31 years old?

  • Sue

    I haven’t seen anyone comment on their answer to the question, how would they deal with the gridlock in DC. Romney said he would cast a general vision and then work with Congress to find the best way to implement that vision. That’s a leadership style that most successful leaders use. Obama said, “I take ideas from anywhere” implying that he was the final arbiter of what would be done and how. Who needs Congress, when he’s the imperial decision-making in chief.

  • Bobby B.

    It looked like President was praying on several occasions during the debate. Probably not much different as the ones said by drivers when their cars hit a patch of ice on the road.

  • igorvitch

    Remember, the losing candidate won several of the first Presidential debates in the past. Kerry dominated in the first debate.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I think the challenger of an incumbent is often in better fighting/debating shape than the incumbent. I also think Obama has been surrounded by yes-men, and does not take well to people challenging his authority and performance.

  • earl irby

    Why is it that there never has been a prominent business man elected to be president. Answer congress is afraid that he would be to smart to deal with. Voters have actually fallen into this trap. I don’t know why any one would vote for a career politician. If you could not run a business how could you run a country past history has proven this right.