Oceans of ink and passels of pixels have been devoted to the first “debate” between Barack Obama and that guy who wants to replace him. The latter was immediately proclaimed the winner by many observers on both sides of the partisan divide, despite the Republican hopeful’s numerous lies, exaggerations, misrepresentations, distortions and deflections. Once the fact-checkers got busy and portions of the punditocracy indulged in some relatively sober second thought, the challenger’s “victory” appeared more and more Pyrrhic and the President’s comparatively subdued performance began to seem less dispirited than dignified.
Having watched all but a few of the GOP “debates” before and during the primaries, I found Romney’s performance pretty unsurprising. He’s not awful in these ludicrous settings. More importantly, for a guy who gives the impression of not being able to get out of bed in the morning without getting his foot caught in a bucket, he managed to get through the debate bucket-free. He had no opinions on the height of Colorado’s trees, he managed to avoid wagering with the President, he made no reference to airplane windows, his wife’s Cadillacs, his NASCAR team owner friends, the backsides of buildings, regional cheese-enhanced delicacies, being unemployed, or never having his birth certificate questioned.
Another thing he avoided all evening was the truth. Overviews of this prodigious prevarication can be found throughout cyberspace, but I recommend the ones you’ll find at Alternet, Rolling Stone, New York magazine, and, my personal favorite, Think Progress.
As always, I found the commentary from the Left more informative but far less entertaining than that from the Right. It’s one thing to be a Republican politician; it’s quite another to be a red-blooded polemicist for Republican politicians. Would the smug, sanctimonious spin and disdainful deceit of rightwing pundits be up to the standard set by their candidate? Of course, silly. The hyperbole couldn’t be any thicker if Romney were to stuff his manhood into a flight suit and proclaim “Mission Accomplished” from the deck of an aircraft carrier. And this was the real target audience, not the listless Republican base, nor independent voters, nor the supposed legions of undecided voters out there in Iowa and Virginia and, yes, Colorado. Romney’s performance was pitched to the self-serving, self-regarding, self-appointed guardians of Mainstream American Values, conservative commentators.
Let’s start with Peggy Noonan. Mitt Romney needed to talk a lot of folks down from the ledge, but none more urgently than Noonan. Take a bow, Governor! Peggy’s back on terra firma, and she’s got some gushing to do:
The impact of the first debate is going to be bigger than we know. It’s going to affect thinking more than we know, and it’s going to start showing up in the polls, including in the battlegrounds, more dramatically than we guess.
Or, um, not, but the portentousness is just getting started:
America got its first, sustained look at the good and competent Mr. Romney… He was confident, gracious, in command of the facts. He looked like a president, acted like one. He was easily the incumbent’s equal and maybe more than that, so he became for the first time a real alternative to the incumbent, a living one, not just a name on a ballot…
He was a normal, smart adult, and he knew things both about America and about public policy…
Normal? Smart? Yes, that does sound pretty presidential. Not satisfied just playing nicely with her shiny new Mitt Romney doll, Noonan tosses a few spleen-tipped darts at her Barack Obama dartboard:
He’s never been punctured before. But by debate’s end Wednesday night, if you opened the window this is what you could hear: Ssssssss. The soft hiss of air departing from a balloon.
But even that’s insufficient. Noonan insists on playing Kreskin, and thinking just doesn’t get more wishful:
… this whole race is on the move again, it’s in play again, and it’s going to get fun…
Everything he said—everything—was something you’d heard too many times. Mr. Romney gave the president some openings. The president didn’t take them. Why? It crossed my mind he was playing possum. But possums wake up at some point.
Mr. Obama’s likability numbers are about to go down. It’s going to be a reverse Sally Field: You don’t like me, you really don’t like me.
If Noonan’s analysis was all multicolored highlighting with hearts and flowers scribbled in the margins, George Will’s was that of the stern schoolmarm, ready to plant a dunce cap on the head of the electorate should they stubbornly refuse to appreciate the brilliance, the steely determination, the sheer presidential presidentitude of his man Willard:
… a masterfully prepared Mitt Romney completed a trifecta of tasks and unveiled an issue that, because it illustrates contemporary liberalism’s repellant essence, can constitute his campaign’s closing argument.
Romney’s tasks? “Unleashing his inner wonk about economic matters” is first up, followed by “tutoring Obama on such elementary distinctions as that between reducing tax rates… and reducing revenue,” and the third, a flimsy attempt at a Hobson’s Choice between Will’s cartoonish characterizations of “a society in which markets — the voluntary collaboration of creative individuals — allocate opportunity” and the lowering Obamian menace of “today’s depressed and anxious society of unprecedented stagnation in the fourth year of a faux recovery — a bleak society in which government incompetently allocates resources in pursuit of its perishable certitudes and on behalf of the politically connected.” Why were these Romney’s tasks? Because Will thinks Romney actually accomplished them.
Oh, and that unveiled issue that “illustrates contemporary liberalism’s repellant essence”? Some incoherent gibberish about Obamacare’s Republic-sabotaging, Constitution-shredding, freedom-filleting Independent Payment Advisory Board. Wake the hell up, America! If we’re not careful, why, someday everyone might have the sort of health coverage that George Will enjoys! I think I just heard John Adams roll over in his grave, although it might have been Button Gwinnett.
Will, too, has a Barack Obama dartboard, but he prefers throwing javelins to darts:
Barack Obama, knight of the peevish countenance, illustrated William F. Buckley’s axiom that liberals who celebrate tolerance of other views always seem amazed that there are other views. Obama, who is not known as a martyr to the work ethic and who might use a teleprompter when ordering lunch, seemed uncomfortable with a format that allowed fluidity of discourse.
Got that? Barack Obama is clueless, inarticulate, shiftless, uppity and churlish. At least Will leavens the offensiveness of his accusations with the hilarious assertion that there’s anything resembling “discourse” in what passes for political debates these days. Then again, he probably considers his own pasty, puffed-up pronouncements to be intellectual commentary, so maybe he just can’t help it.
Not to be outdone in the hyperventilation sweepstakes, the ever-dyspeptic Charles Krauthammer remarked:
It was the biggest rout since Agincourt. If you insist, since the Carter-Reagan debate. With a remarkable display of confidence, knowledge and nerve, Mitt Romney won the first 2012 debate going away.
Romney didn’t just demonstrate authoritative command of a myriad of domestic issues. He was nervy about it, taking the president on frontally, not just relentlessly attacking, but answering every charge leveled against him – with a three-point rebuttal.
Krauthammer’s just so wildly enthused about Romney’s performance that he spends most of his time talking about Romney’s opponent:
Obama was undone Wednesday in part by his dismissive arrogance. You could see him thinking annoyedly: “Why do I have to be onstage with this clod, when I’ve gone toe-to-toe with Putin?” (And lost every round, I’d say. But that’s not how Obama sees it.)
… Obama just isn’t that good. Not without a teleprompter. He’s not even that good at news conferences – a venue in which he’s still in charge, choosing among questioners and controlling the timing of his own answers.
Michael Barone of the Washington Examiner is less nimble of thought and prose than the foregoing, perhaps, but his debate ruminations exemplify the primal Republican desire to have a Daddy in the Oval Office:
The most important thing about these debates is that they give voters an idea of which candidate can take command for an office one of whose titles is commander-in-chief. Romney, in his interactions with Lehrer and with Obama, established that he is a man who can take command. Obama, through the whole debate, seemed like a man who cannot. Romney took command tonight and Obama looked irritable and weak. Americans don’t usually want irritable and weak leaders as their commanders-in-chief.
Which one looked more like a president? Mitt Romney.
Welcome to Republican World. The actual Commander-in-Chief – who made good on his promise to end the occupation of Iraq and has begun winding down the occupation of Afghanistan, had bin Laden killed, restored funding and focus to the care of combat veterans, was instrumental but spotlight-averse in the overthrow of Gaddafi, honors and supports military families, and has neutralized terrorist networks his predecessor only talked about neutralizing – is irritable and weak, whereas a guy who can interact boldly with his debate opponent and with the semi-retired Jim Lehrer is somehow a guy “who can take command.” Amazing.
This piece, like Will’s, Noonan’s and Krauthammer’s, reads as if written over a pitcher of martinis on Wednesday afternoon, if not earlier, though perhaps tweaked a little bit post-debate for that authentic “you are there” feel. Robert Costa of the National Review takes a more reportorial approach, providing information fascinating for reasons entirely different from what the writer and his editors probably think:
In early September, Romney slowed down his campaign schedule and retreated with a small group of advisers to the home of Kerry Healey, his former lieutenant governor. Ohio senator Rob Portman, a trusted ally, joined Stuart Stevens, Eric Fehrnstrom, Bob White, and a handful of other Romney confidants. They spent days holding mock debates, and nights reviewing President Obama’s stylistic tics. When they needed a break, they roamed around Healey’s secluded estate, which is 100 miles south of Burlington, Vt. But mostly they talked, over hot chocolate and coffee, about how best to communicate Romney’s message.
Portman says Romney’s willingness to fully commit to the prep was striking. Day after day, he’d get up early, exercise, and then join the team for hours of work. Advisers certainly played a role, but according to Portman, it was the candidate who drove his advisers…
One longtime Romney friend tells me that Romney markedly improved throughout September as he devoted himself to his briefing books and the mock debates. The friend says Romney didn’t think of the debate as a political dialogue but as a grueling, 90-minute competition that demanded discipline. He prepared in the same way he used to review pending business deals at Bain Capital: He challenged his closest advisers about the most minor points, he spent a lot of time reading, and he constantly bantered with his aides about the other side’s weaknesses and strengths.
It’s extraordinary what you can pack into a day when you don’t have a job, I guess. And Costa’s riveting account could almost make you think Mitt Romney is in charge of his own campaign, which begs the question of why he allowed it to unravel so badly in the months leading up to his supposed Mile-High Miracle.