Here's the impromptu, non-wonky take by this former Nebraska state debate champ and policy debate coach on the first debate of the 2012 U.S. General Election.
STYLE AND DEMEANOR
Romney started very strong. He verged on being over-aggressive at times, especially when he interrupted and overruled Jimmy Lehher, an American news legend who seemed passive and geriatric inside the night's new freewheeling debate format. Obama could have played the statesman, stayed within time limits, and not overruled Lehrer. In which case, he could have painted Romney as the GOP Al Gore. Instead, Obama went over limits, interrupted and even MADE FUN OF Lehrer's time limits -- big mistake --, which undercut the inherent advantage that the President had on deportment.
Moreover, Obama started slow and stiff. He just didn't have the Obama mojo out of the gate. Especially with Romney FAR more specific, concise, and precise on policy. At times Romney seemed like the President and Obama the Junior Senator with a lot to learn, especially with Romney looking straight at, and almost lecturing, the President most of the debate.
Obama definitely warmed up mid-way through the night when the topics turned to his sweet spots of ObamaCare and Medicare, but he never got ahead. His closing was far better than Romney's was -- because he was able to tick off his obvious accomplishments on eliminating Don't Ask/Don't Tell, bringing troops home from Iraq, offing Bin Laden, and expanding drone strikes on Al Qaeda -- but by then, the damage had been done.
One stylistic thing that Obama did better: he occasionally looked right at the camera and, thus, right at the American people. This was very effective when he made the obvious, but popular points that; A. After the financial crisis, Wall Street needed more regulation; and B. Romney intended to "voucher-ize" a fair amount of Medicare.
Romney should look at the camera more. Moreover, in his closing, Romney needs to stop bobbing up and down like some over-amped debate nerd. Not good.
No doubt about it. Romney came out strong. He brought the fight to the President. And he simply overwhelmed the President with facts, stats, and plans. While Obama tried to muddy the definition of "small business," Romney effectively countered by showing how those 3% of American small business owners affected by Obama's increased taxes on "millionaires and billionaires" actually produce one-quarter of the country's jobs. Obama had no effective rejoinder.
Instead, Obama stuck to his talking points and, outside of blaming Bush for the mess he inherited, he seemed unable or unwilling to counter Romney on core facts that happened on his watch: deficit expanded, not halved as the President promised; Food Stamp rolls dramatically up; 23 million unemployed or underemployed and growing; GDP going down year after year.
Moreover, Obama was still getting away with the lie that it was Bush's regulatory policies that lead to the housing market collapse and the subsequent financial crisis. In fact, it was bipartisan loose lending standards and easy Fed money that primarily lead to the housing bubble. Romney again failed to effectively hammer Obama on this false narrative. He needs to get Obama to cop to the fact that the blame for the financial crisis goes far and wide -- including liar loans -- not just to Wall Street (Obama's favorite whipping boy, even as he takes millions from Wall Street's wealthy donors).
Obama definitely bounced back with attacks on the lack of Romney specificity, even though Romney effectively, and vociferously, challenged the President's claim that the Governor's plan to decrease taxes across-the-board by 20% will increase the deficit. The devil is in the details, of course. And there's still not a lot of detail, though Romney did generously and courageously say more about the programs he would cut, including -- stupidly methinks -- PBS itself!
Where Romeny really dismantled the President was on the role of government. The Governor definitely made the case that states are "the laboratories of innovation." You came away thinking that the Mr. Romney definitely cared about poor people, about seniors, about education, but thought that efficiency and job creation happened much better via states and localities in conjunction with the private sector.
That's the heart of the debate in this election. Obama wants to paint Romney as someone who doesn't care because he doesn't want the Federal government to solve all of our problems. And Romney was quite persuasive in arguing that he cares very much, which is why he wants states and localities and small business actively involved in the solution.
I think the President definitely carried the rationales for ObamaCare and Dodd-Frank. Romney looks like he's cherry-picking what he likes from each without signing on to the whole kit and caboodle. Obama needs to exploit this better in future debates. He needs to say that Romney cannot have his cake and eat it too. Because you cannot, with ObamaCare for instance, get the savings or universal coverage without the mandates. Obama missed an opportunity there.
One cannot shake the impression that Romney is taking this economic slowdown very seriously (even personally), while Obama, for all his charisma, is just not worried enough. After two expensive and impetuous wars, Obama was the cool cat that the country needed. However, right now, things are dark and desperate in most of the USA. And Romney's almost hysterical obsession with getting jobs and incomes growing again is perhaps the clarion call that the country wants and needs. Obama might be too cool for school.
As an independent, after tonight's debate, I am left with the feeling that not much radically new will happen in an Obama second term, except more unfunded expansion of federal spending. In other words, more of the same. Unfortunately, more of the same isn't cutting it for most Americans.
This race is going to be close. And Obama is a proven winner. However, he's in the fight of his political career against a candidate, former Governor, and businessman who clearly knows his stuff.
Sorry, Obama-heads, Mitt Romney isn't easy softball prey like John McCain or Alan Keyes. Moreover, in a TV debate, Romney does not fit the uncaring, detached rich guy stereotype that Team Obama has been shoveling out there to cover up the President's palpable economic and budgetary failures. One literally feels Romney's compassion and caring. One sees it in his face. One hears it in his voice. Further ad hominem attacks on straight edge Romney's character are no longer going to cut it.
Which means it's going to take a lot more than Obama showed tonight for the President to win this thing.
As even the liberal blogosphere is admitting: Advantage Romney.
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