President Barack Obama's commanding performance in the third and final debate mattered to the viewers at home, of course. But as we will see in the days ahead, it will matter even more in setting the tone for how the media will cover the campaign in the final run-up to the election.
Pay no attention to the silly pronouncements coming from Governor Mitt Romney's side -- such as Bret Stephens's analysis in the Wall Street Journal that Romney succeeded by coming across as "a perfectly plausible president."
In fact, Romney's timid me-too rhetoric on issues over which he'd been hammering Obama for months played poorly with the public. New York Times polling expert Nate Silver averaged the instant polls coming out of Monday night's debate and found that Obama did even better than he had in the second one -- a 16-point spread, compared to just 10 points a week ago.
Needless to say, it was Romney's 29-point win in the first debate, defined by Obama's bored, diffident persona, that changed the course of the campaign. And that's why it was so important to Obama to come out of the final debate with a clear victory and thus ensure respectful media coverage for the rest of the campaign.
For an example of what can go wrong when a candidate is seen as being on the defensive, consider Romney's October 9 remarks on abortion. Romney's tortured positions on reproductive choice have been a matter of some hilarity for years, but what unfolded that day -- as recounted by USA Today -- was epic.
"There's no legislation with regards to abortion that I'm familiar with that would become part of my agenda," he told the editorial board of the Des Moines Register -- thus walking away from a years-long effort by the formerly pro-choice governor to convince the right that he's not squishy on social issues. Almost immediately, Romney's campaign put out a statement contradicting his contradiction.
Yet Romney's double flip, though widely reported, gained little traction in the larger media conversation. The reason was that Obama had hit his lowest point -- the pundit class was mocking him for his poor performance in the first debate, his poll numbers were falling and Joe Biden had not yet had a chance to undo some of the damage in his encounter with Paul Ryan.
Several weeks earlier it was Romney who was being mocked, with Politico posting a much-talked-about piece depicting a dysfunctional campaign staff reeling and pointing fingers for what was shaping up as a certain defeat. If Romney had made his remarks about abortion legislation then, you can be sure they would have garnered far more attention. But at the time that he spoke, his flip-flopping didn't fit the narrative -- that Obama had gravely wounded his re-election hopes and was struggling to hang on.
Thus by dominating Romney on Monday night, Obama all but guaranteed a favorable media narrative for the final 15 days. But it won't be as bad for Romney as it was for Obama after the first debate. And that's because conservative pundits don't eat their own the way liberals do.
You may recall that liberals gave Obama an ungodly thrashing earlier this month. In contrast, establishment conservatives today are hailing Romney's performance as good enough for a challenger they think is in the better position to win.
"If you went into this debate worried that Romney isn't a safe presidential pick, you came out reassured," wrote Jonah Goldberg of National Review. Added Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard: "Mitt Romney's aim was to present himself with the demeanor and grasp of foreign and national security issues of a president of the United States. He succeeded." Even a decidedly more right-wing commentator like Paul Mirengoff of the Power Line blog gave Romney props for being "knowledgeable, peaceful, and presidential sounding," though he conceded that he "wanted to vomit" over Romney's move away from neoconservative orthodoxy.
The far right, on the other hand, was not nearly as kind to Romney. As John Nichols of the Nation noted, Media Research Center founder Brent Bozell at one point tweeted, "Something is wrong with Romney tonight. He's refusing to challenge Obama's failed policies. He's sounding LIKE Obama. This is terrible." And this, from Glenn Beck, was widely retweeted: "I am glad to know that mitt agrees with Obama so much. No, really. Why vote?"
Beck did settle down and shift more toward Romney as the evening wore on. But it doesn't hurt Romney to win the support of the Republican establishment while the extreme right expresses reservations about him. Indeed, that's a formula for appealing to independents.
(And now, a brief pause for substance. How damaging to the national discourse has it been that Obama has faced no challenges from his left? It was nauseating to listen to Obama, Romney and moderator Bob Schieffer all essentially agree that killing foreigners in drone attacks is a good thing.)
The dominant media theme today is that Obama won and won big, a message being promoted by the same liberal allies who turned on the president three weeks ago. There are many examples I could point to, but I'll give the last word to E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post: "The play-not-[to]-lose strategy lost Obama the first debate, and it lost Romney the third. Worse, Romney's approach reinforced his biggest weakness: a growing sense that he will alter any position if doing so will help him win the election."
So we're back to the Etch-A-Sketch. Shake it up. It's almost over.
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