Two days have gone by since the first presidential debate. Since, we have political pundits decrying Obama’s passive tactics, a new Twitter account for Silent Jim Lehrer, and a series of Big Bird memes. Public backlash was strong against Obama, and commentator Andrew Sullivan even suggested that Obama might have lost the election Wednesday night. However, when sorting through these myriad opinions, it is important to use a historical viewpoint and to also view the debate with perspective.
Yes, Romney won. While Obama effused confidence in his plan and maintained a calm demeanor, there was something listless about his movements all night. Perhaps unaware that, for the first time, debates would be viewed on split-screen television, Obama spent much of the night looking down and taking notes while Romney was talking. He was unprepared for Romney’s blatant denial of Obama’s assertions that the plan Romney champions would add $5 trillion to the deficit through tax cuts for the rich, repeating it as though stunned when Romney insisted this wasn’t the case.
To his credit, Romney—who trailed Obama in the polls coming into the night—played the attacker from the beginning and went after the president’s record on issues from the economy to energy policy. He was animated from the onset and nothing, not even moderator Jim Lehrer, stopped him from a harrowing attack on Obama’s record. The aggression was borne out of desperation; Romney has steadily been falling further and further back in the polls since the Democratic National Convention, and nothing truly positive has bolstered his campaign since.
Yet, if the expectations for Romney had not been so low coming into the debate would we have been all that surprised? The knock on Mitt is his inability to empathize with his constituents—his comments about the “47 percent” refueled criticism that he is out-of touch—but he displayed a talent for debating during the Republican primaries. His one gaffe, offering to bet Rick Perry $10,000 on an outcome, was tactless but displayed his comfort on the stage.
You could have watched this debate without sound and proclaimed him the victor, much as you could during the Republican primaries. Here Mitt looks more comfortable than at formal functions; his body language is positive, and his expression reflects his eagerness for confrontation. Obama’s reputation as a great orator is well deserved, but Romney is no slouch in this department. Had we come into this debate acknowledging Romney’s skills, perhaps the result would not have been so shocking.
Similarly, it is important to acknowledge the nature of the first debate. The discussion topics—the economy and health care—lent themselves to a discussion of Obama’s record. They are major topics in the election, no doubt, but topics that Obama was unable to turn into a discussion of Romney’s history. Phrases like “the one percent,” “Bain Capital,” and “the forty-seven percent” were conspicuously absent from the president’s lexicon as he abstained from a full-on attack of Romney’s record.
The first debate routinely goes in favor of the challenger, and there are two more to come. In the meantime, Obama will likely regroup and prepare to come out focused and on the attack from the first question. In the first debate, as The Atlantic’s James Fallows writes, challengers are “elevated simply by being matched on equal footing with the president.” Obama was also forced to publicly argue with someone directly opposed to his views for the first time in four years, while Romney spent his winter crisscrossing the country swapping intellectual banter with Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, and Newt Gingrich. While not the liberal standard-bearer Romney faced Wednesday, the trio provided a diverse array of attacks on Romney’s record he quickly learned to parry and avoid.
Polling shows a wide discrepancy in the number of Americans who declared Romney the victor—as much as three to one by CNN’s estimate—but we should view these findings with caution. A simple random dialing method of polling American households still riding the emotional crest of the debate is insufficient evidence for how this will affect the race moving forward. The number of undecided voters remaining is a minute fraction of the total electorate, and few committed votes likely switched sides after Wednesday night.
Media hyperbole like Sullivan’s draws good ratings but is too preemptive. There are three more debates and, if the 67.2 million Americans that tuned in Wednesday night are any indicator, the country will be watching. Next week’s matchup of two political bulldogs in Joe Biden and Paul Ryan should set the tone for a more adversarial Barack Obama and Mitt Romney matchup the week after.
Certainly Romney outperformed expectations, but lest we forget, some were on the edge of declaring the race over as little as a week ago. The first debate favors the challenger, the second the incumbent. This story is far from over.
Photo Credit: AP