Mitt Romney achieved what he had to do during the first Presidential debate on Wednesday night: He came across as confident, equal to holding a stage with President Obama. Right out of the gate, he was animated where a still, stately Obama spent the first 45 minutes or so seeming to warm up. As a television presence making pithy statements — in pure matters of style; whether the majority of his assertions were accurate, factual, is another matter to be parsed — Romney dominated. And when you dominate the camera on TV, you probably leave the audience feeling you’re making the more convincing arguments.
Obama made a significant media mistake for someone who’s usually TV-savvy: He looked at the moderator more often than his opponent, whereas Romney looked at Obama. This had the result of making Romney seemed forthrightly challenging, trying to engage the person he was debating; Obama was looking off at an angle, neither at Romney nor us — visually, he came across as though talking to Lehrer — and with all due respect to the moderator, who cares what he thinks, it’s the public that needs to be won over — or debating the air. By no coincidence at all, it was toward the end of the debate, when Romney started gasping with platitudinal variations on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that Romney started looking at Lehrer, as though for support, or inspiration. He immediately seemed less effective, more distracted and vague.
The wheels didn’t start coming off the Romney machine until after the first hour, when he started making blanket statements such as, “The government is not effective in bringing down the price of anything” and “The private market… always works best.” Coincidentally, this — after the 10 p.m. ET hour — was when Obama pulled himself together as a debater, going at Romney for his voucher system plan to replace Medicare and emphasizing that his opponent promises a lot but “we don’t know the details,” “he won’t tell us.” Is it, he asked in a too-rare moment of humor, “because [his ideas] are too good?” Obama also scored — too late in the evening to be as potent as it could have been — in chastising Romney for not being “willing to say no to some of the more extreme elements of his party.”
The Denver debate got off to a logy start, with the President’s sappy happy anniversary wish to his “sweetie” — he and Michelle were celebrating their 20th — and a flurry of asserted and denied figures. The two most oft-repeated: Obama’s charge that Romney will saddle the country with $8 trillion in debt; Romney’s charge that Obama would cut $716 billion from Medicare. The President embraced his inner Obamacare: “I have become fond of this term ‘Obamacare,'” he said of the Republicans’ sneery, dismissive label for the Democrats’ health care reform. It’s a gamble, doing this — you can come off looking as though you can take the heat, or seem as though you’ve given up trying to win that battle of insult.
As for the vaunted “zingers” Romney was widely publicized as being armed with, like Katniss’ arrows — yes, he had a few. “I’ve been in business for 25 years and I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Romney said of Obama’s economic proposals, not hilarious but effective in articulating the way a lot of people feel about discussions of budgets, deficits, and tax cuts. And this: “Look, I’ve got five boys,” he said at one point. “I’m used to people saying something that’s not always true, but just keep on repeating it and ultimately hoping I’ll believe it. But… I will not reduce the taxes paid by high-income Americans.” Well, I didn’t say it was a short zinger.
Romney came prepared to implicitly address the criticisms of him as disconnected from average Americans. He told anecdotes about talking to regular folks; he assured viewers, “cut taxes for the rich — that’s not what I’m gonna do”; he pulled a jiu-jitsu move in taking a despised Republican term — “trickle-down economics” and used it on his opponent, accusing Obama of practicing “trickle-down government.”
Jim Lehrer was, I’m afraid, not up to the level of energy and assertion needed to play traffic cop and referee. He allowed Romney to steamroll over his attempts to cut him short. Lerher’s follow-up questions were halting and not concisely or pointedly formed. In the past, Lehrer has been a lot stronger.
I’m going to use Chris Matthews, the dowager countess of MSNBC, to explain why Romney should probably be viewed as the winner of this debate: Debates, said Matthews seconds before this one started, “are about emotions.” You don’t use “your intellectual IQ, it’s your emotional IQ” that leaves the lasting impression. In this regard, Romney’s TV performance exceeded the President’s.