By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor
Wednesday night’s debate was already going badly for President Obama by the end of the first half hour, but as the 90 minutes drew to a close things seemed to get worse. The President’s top surrogates began the damage control within minutes, and they knew they had a tough task. David Axelrod had the look of someone on the eighth tall glass of liquid colonoscopy prep, the stuff you have to drink the night before the procedure. David Plouffe looked and sounded worse, like a man midway through root canal sans anesthesia. Then, all through the night, the spin doctors worked feverishly to control the damage, with little success.
When it comes to politics, it is sometimes neither wise nor possible to blame things on misperceptions, nor on a failure to execute the artful dodge known as raised or lowered expectations. Sometimes it’s just your fault—or, as in this case, the President’s.
Hardly anyone watching Wednesday’s much-anticipated presidential debate at the University of Denver thought that Obama had won, even among his most reliable allies in the media. To the last, the major networks and major news services called it a clear win for Republican challenger Mitt Romney, and even the liberal analysts on CNN’s and ABC’s otherwise diverse panels agreed that the night belonged to Romney.
And for those who missed it (as if you haven’t had a thousand opportunities to watch replays of the best exchanges), here’s the short version: Romney took the fight directly to the President, aggressively challenging him on his record, and defending his own proposals with confidence and reasonable clarity. President Obama was unsteady, rambling, ill-at-ease, and unfocused. Worse, he seemed profoundly unable to deliver a clear or decisive case to voters that he should be rewarded with four more years in the White House.
What’s more striking is how quickly Romney seized the momentum during the early moments of the debate. The President was already in retreat within the first 15 minutes, and by my own estimate the whole thing was over—on points—by 35 minutes into the match.
It wasn’t even a close call, despite the Herculean and sometimes convoluted efforts of the Obama surrogates to spin a different story.
What had been scrupulously billed by both sides—as well as a largely compliant press corps—as the Dream Debate, a match-up of the best two political litigators in recent history (NBC News estimates that between the two of them, Obama and Romney have nearly 50 debates under their belts) turned into an awkward, one-sided affair. This was not Borg versus McEnroe at the 1980 Wimbledon, and everyone watching knew it. This was lopsided.
Overnight, the spin masters for the White House and the chief talkers for the Left fought back against the perception that Romney had easily re-established his bona fides as being worthy of the desk in the Oval Office. It was, at times, shrill and strained.
Angie Aker, writing in an email on behalf of the liberal group MoveOn.Org called Romney’s attacks “mischaracterizations,” and blamed the whole debacle on moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS. With Lehrer unable to effectively redirect the conversation, there was no one there to keep Romney in check, and Obama was too polite to cut him off (never mind the fact that it was the President who most frequently ran over in terms of allotted time). “He lied,” Aker wrote of Romney, “about his tax plan, his deficit plan, and Medicare. He lied about what Obamacare would do. He lied, baldly and convincingly, about Obama’s entire presidency.”
David Plouffe, working the morning news interview circuit, also retreated to within the walls of the besieged, essentially deploying the liar-liar-pants-on-fire defense. At appearances the next day in Wisconsin, Obama said that the Romney he had debated the night before was not the Romney who had campaigned against a legion of GOP opponents between 2011 and early this spring.
Indeed, even before the debate had concluded at 10:30 Eastern Time, the Obama campaign had begun to grind the glass for a new lens through which to understand this first confrontation, repeatedly calling Romney’s debate win “a performance,” and suggesting, naïvely (or perhaps contemptuously), that the President was not prepared to “perform” in this manner.
Sure…like Michael Dukakis wasn’t prepared to sound more like a human and less like Robbie the Robot in his 1988 debate with George H.W. Bush, and just like President Jimmy Carter wasn’t prepared when Ronald Reagan challenged Carter on his actual economic record in 1980. Some things should not require “performance” skills, and some things should never qualify as blindsides.
In truth, Obama wasn’t briefed to expect Mitt Romney to stand alongside him on that stage in Denver and challenge him so bluntly. That Obama seemed halting and unsteady when confronted should not come as a total shock—indeed many recent presidents have engaged in the sometimes faulty and dangerous practice of surrounding themselves with sycophants, an accumulation of agreeable but obtuse palace guards and other lackeys whose sole function is to shield the boss from unpleasantness and criticism.
Indeed, not since candidate Barack Obama faced the withering incoming fire from Hillary Clinton back in 2008 has the current president been forced to deal with such a direct and combative entry into his professorial and personal space. Despite Obama’s conciliatory style, his closest lieutenants—Axelrod, Plouffe, Valerie Jarrett and others—provide the same sort of sound-proof insulation that George W. Bush came to expect from his inner circle. Like Bush, Obama is fed primarily the good news, and often protected from the worst. This explains many things—a pattern of sluggish understanding and delayed response to the long chain of uprisings and violent upheaval in the wider Middle East, a failure to produce proactivity in matters related to border security, and, most prominently, the use of a highly skewed filter through which to view the anemic economic progress of the last four years.
Obama was unprepared to be challenged so forcefully on this last point, though in fact the largely overplayed matter of the famous Reagan question of are you better off never came up in those exact words. Though the complaints against Romney—somewhat fairly—center on his lack of specifics, the President himself frequently lapsed into vagueness, and was unable to provide his core argument: that of his own detailed plan to shepherd the economy forward and upward. On this point, Obama was least prepared, for what sells on the stump speech circuit sometimes fails to meet the test in a debate.
The TelePrompTer has enabled the President the continuing luxury of soaring rhetoric and optimistic intonation, but it has insulated him from the heat of ground fire. Romney, coming off of nearly 30 debates and several serious challenges to his status as de facto GOP front-runner—including notable insurrections by skilled debaters like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum—understands the street, as well as the space inside the political arena. This of course seems contrary to the dominant media portrayal of Romney as a tool of the super-rich and a man detached from the average American, but the mere fact that there was such uniform shock at last night’s outcome once again shows the true nature of the disconnect between the press and the typical voter.
This same Greek Chorus existed in 1980 as well, and even in the days after the final debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan there was a sense among the larger community of journalists—as well as their compatriots inside The Beltway and inside Carter’s insulated White House—that it was Ronald Reagan who was disconnected from reality. Thirty years ago the debates showed us otherwise, but it was the actions of voters which truly proved the larger point.