The debate began with carefully scripted stories designed to boost "likability." Obama talked about he and Michelle's anniversary while Romney references unemployed and underemployed people he had met on the campaign trail. It ended with both candidates reminding America, yet again, how much they will fight for the middle class. In between the anecdotes and the platitudes, Obama failed to land the knockout blows he needed and allowed Romney to eke out a win with an effective, albeit uninspiring, performance.
Historically, every incumbent president besides Bill Clinton has lost their first debate. Whether it was Reagan seeming old and confused against Walter Mondale in 1984 or George W. Bush being pummeled about his mismanagement of the war in Iraq by John Kerry in 2004, sitting presidents have a terrible track record in the first debate of their incumbency. President Obama was no exception to this trend, and his underwhelming debate performance could allow Mitt Romney to put a summer of gaffes behind him and regain the momentum in the 2012 presidential campaign.
Presidential debates do not occur in a vacuum. They are one part of a campaign's overall strategy. Obama's campaign has been built around anti-Romney messages: He doesn't pay his fair share of taxes, he wants to take Medicare away, he likes to fire people, he hates 47 percent of Americans. Going into the Denver debate, Obama needed to continue that strategy -- remind voters that no matter how bad the country is now, a Romney administration would make it worse. Instead, he took the high road, failing to throw any of the rhetorical haymakers needed to knock out Romney's candidacy.
This is not an inherently bad debate strategy, but it requires the president be able to vigorously defend his record in office. Since Obama's record involves making the oxymoronic phrase "growth recession" part of the American economic lexicon, the high road is also an uphill one. If Obama wanted to use this debate to praise his presidency, he would have needed a quick list of how working families are better off than they were four years ago. Instead, each program was praised individually in legislative jargon so thick that the average voter was either confused after Obama finished talking or stopped listening after the first sentence.
The few times when Obama did try and attack his opponent, he was similarly wonky and confusing. On Medicare, Obama could easily have said, "Governor Romney's plan for Medicare is the same as Paul Ryan's. He will end Medicare as we know it and turn into a voucher that will put seniors at the mercy of insurance companies." Instead, he rambled about health care cost inflation and the details of how insurance companies select customers. On taxation, Obama could easily have said, "Under Governor Romney's tax plan, a hedge fund manager gets a tax cut and his secretary gets a tax increase." When asked about Romney's tax plan, Obama talked around the issue. A viewer who watched the debate with no knowledge about the election would think Obama opposed Romney's tax plan only because it was not specific enough.
Obama's inability to land the knockout blow meant that Mitt Romney won by default. Because of the prevailing campaign narrative, all Romney needed to do was show that he wasn't Ebenezer Scrooge with better hair. He cleared this low bar with ease. Obama was criticized not for being an un-American socialist but for failing to govern effectively. Romney was awkward at times; his thin smile and fighting at the lectern was reminiscent of Richard Nixon's sweaty debate performance in 1960. There were no one-liners that will be enshrined in the annals of American political history and certainly no outline of a grand vision for a Romney presidency, but a dull win is still a win. The staunchly conservative positions Romney pledged fealty to during the Republican primary were nowhere to be found on the Denver stage, instead being replaced by praise for working families, teachers, and green energy. Rather than looking like the embodiment of the 1 percent, Romney came across as safe, sane, and compassionate.
It's an open question whether or not this debate, or any of them, will matter. In 2004, John Kerry was the clear winner of every debate against George Bush, yet could never make the needed dent in Bush's support. In 2000, Bush effectively used the debates against Al Gore, where Gore came across as arrogant and unlikable, to win over independent voters. Romney desperately needs to keep his debate momentum going which means he needs to continue to jettison harsh conservative ideology for the pragmatic, nonpartisan messaging he won the debate with. That's Romney's road to the White House: criticize Obama's failures in office without criticizing Obama personally, keep framing issues like taxes and Medicare in terms of helping the working class, and keep running away from the extremist positions of the Republican fringe. If he can do that, if he can run the rest of the campaign like the first debate, Romney might pull off the upset in November.