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Worse Than Losing: How Obama Changed the Media Narrative

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Just a few days ago, conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer was whining about Mitt Romney.

"He's gone small ball," Krauthammer told Fox News host Bill O'Reilly on Monday, calling the Republican presidential candidate's campaign "extremely small and tactical and not strategic."

So what did Krauthammer think of Romney's performance in Wednesday night's debate?

"I thought Romney won and Romney won big," Krauthammer said on Fox. "He won by two touchdowns... I think it really changes things. It doesn't change the game, but it changes the momentum."

You're going to hear a lot of talk from President Obama's supporters today about why Romney's vastly superior performance didn't matter. Don't believe it. In fact, the first debate is going to matter a great deal in the days ahead. That's because Romney's clear victory is going to change the media narrative -- several narratives, for that matter.

First, the conservative commentariat, led by figures such as Krauthammer, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol and Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, had all but given up on Romney -- criticizing him publicly and, in Noonan's case, mocking him.

Here, for instance, is what Kristol wrote about Romney on September 17: "When a challenger merely appeals to disappointment with the incumbent and tries to reassure voters he's not too bad an alternative, that isn't generally a formula for victory. Mike Dukakis lost."

Last night, Kristol was singing an entirely different tune:

Mitt Romney stood and delivered the best debate performance by a Republican presidential candidate in more than two decades. Romney spoke crisply about the next four years as well as the last four years, was detailed in clarifying the choice of paths ahead, and seemed more comfortable, more energetic -- and even more presidential -- than the incumbent.

It will be especially interesting to see what Noonan has to say. Two weeks ago, following the "47 percent" mega-gaffe, she called the Romney campaign "incompetent," adding, "It's not big, it's not brave, it's not thoughtfully tackling great issues. It's always been too small for the moment." As I write this, she has not yet weighed in on Wednesday night's proceedings. It's safe to assume, though, that she will join her fellow establishment conservatives Krauthammer and Kristol in declaring that Romney is now off life support.

The earlier criticism was devastating, because it fed into a sense that the Romney campaign wasn't just going to lose, but was becoming toxic along the lines of Barry Goldwater in 1964 or George McGovern in 1972. There was a real question as to whether Republican House and Senate candidates would even want to be seen with Romney as they tried desperately to separate themselves from the national ticket.

By 10:30 p.m. on Wednesday -- OK, maybe 9:30 -- that sense of doom had dissipated.

Second, the tone of mainstream news coverage is going to shift enormously. Reporters who were conveying the sense that they were covering a doomed, antically inept campaign are going to start writing and broadcasting stories that the Romney-Ryan ticket is on the rebound. It's already happening. I could cite many examples, but the lead story in today's New York Times, by Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg, makes the case as well as any:

Mitt Romney on Wednesday accused President Obama of failing to lead the country out of the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression, using the first presidential debate to invigorate his candidacy by presenting himself as an equal who can solve problems Mr. Obama has been unable to.

You could, of course, make an argument that Romney's victory will prove temporary as it becomes clear that what he said during the debate was often false and often at odds with what he had said previously. Personally, I thought Obama never recovered from Romney's claim that he does not, in fact, favor a $5 trillion tax cut that would mainly benefit the wealthy. Romney's statement was so brazenly false that Obama seemed gobsmacked.

But who will point these things out? The fact-checkers? Read this, from FactCheck.org, and see if it doesn't take your breath away: "Obama accused Romney of proposing a $5 trillion tax cut. Not true. Romney proposes to offset his rate cuts and promises he won't add to the deficit."

Good grief. The whole point of Obama's critique was that Romney's numbers don't come close to adding up, and that he's never offered any details about the changes he would make to the tax code in order to make his tax cut revenue-neutral. And let's not forget that he's going to increase military spending, too. At least PolitiFact, which generally shows a bit more backbone than FactCheck, called Obama's assertion "half true."

Obama supporters can't blame moderator Jim Lehrer for his comatose performance given that the president himself was only slightly more energetic. The door for Romney was closing, and Obama helpfully opened it for him on Wednesday night.

"Barring revelations by the Obama campaign that Mitt Romney has an identical twin, whoever that guy representing the GOP ticket was in Denver has just given the United States a real presidential election. At last," wrote another influential conservative pundit, Daniel Henninger, deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

You're going to be hearing that a lot over the next two weeks, when Obama and Romney will meet again.