The verdict was in before the debate was over: the president lost -- he was distracted, weak, disinterested, irritated and looking like he wished he was somewhere else. Maybe the facts were on his side, maybe his opponent was shamelessly dissembling, but so what? That's politics, folks!
Governor Romney (suddenly proud of his Massachusetts moniker) won -- he was reasonable but aggressive, articulate but emotive. He was kind of making things up as he went along but it was working big-time: "What, me lower taxes on the rich? Never! What, me make Medicare a voucher program? Who told you that? What, me leave out people with pre-existing conditions from access to health care plans? I wouldn't be so cruel! Paul Ryan? Who's that?"
Bottom line, Romney lied and the president sighed. Romney made stuff up and the president stood down. Milquetoast moderator Jim Lehrer let Romney elude his feeble questions and steer the debate any way he wanted, and the president watched. On the evidence of this single evening, you could almost believe Romney would make the better president, lies, opportunism, Tea Party and all!
I get that the president's team wanted to play preventative defense, be safe, wanted Obama to remain aloofly presidential. Was he ever! He let his advisers disarm the most powerful man in America at the moment he was asked to be reelected president of the most powerful country in the world. The trick was to keep Obama looking both tough and presidential, feisty and nice. Here's how he might have done it, what he coulda/shoulda said:
Romney: I just want to help the middle class...
Obama: I hear you say that tonight, Governor Romney. But that's not what the country heard you saying earlier in the year at a fundraiser. You stand here now and talk about caring and the middle class, after telling your big money backers that you don't really care about 47 percent of the country? Do you know who those 47 percent are? Those who "don't pay taxes," Governor? Veterans; hard-working retirees; beneficiaries of Ronald Reagan's Earned Income Tax Credit, minimum wage workers, some with two jobs, who don't make enough to reach even the minimum tax level. They are America. You can't write them off when you talk to your big bucks backers and then tell the American people tonight you care.
Romney: I like Big Bird, Jim, I like you too, but I'm going to defund PBS.
Obama: We all love Big Bird, anyone who has raised kids in the last forty years loves Big Bird. But what you are missing Governor, is that Big Bird stands for something important. Big Bird is about educating our kids without selling them stuff at the same time. Big Bird is about carving out one small slice of the broadcast spectrum to do programming commercial television can't afford to present. Do you really want to eliminate a very modest subsidy for one of America's greatest assets we all benefit from? Well, let me tell you Governor, I am ready to pick a fight with subsidies -- eliminate the one to the oil industry for example. But I will fight to keep the few dollars we still spend on public broadcasting, on the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. No, Governor, if I were you, I'd stick to bad-mouthing big government. But I'd leave Big Bird alone.
Romney: I'm not asking for a five trillion dollar tax cut for the rich. I want to cut everyone's taxes, especially the middle class.
Obama: Governor, you know and I know we can say more or less anything we want tonight in the debate. We can contradict what we said yesterday or what we plan to say tomorrow, and maybe folks won't tune in to the fact checkers to see who is right. But here is the difference, Governor Romney, when you are campaigning for office you can pivot here and there, you can say X today and Y tomorrow, you can talk to your radical base one week and pretend they don't exist the next. But when you are President of the United States you can't play it fast and loose: you can't just change your mind overnight. Or make things up. People depend on your words, because your words have consequences. Your credibility depends on your consistency, and without credibility you have no power. If you don't mean what you say, you can't govern. That's the responsibility of power. That's the burden I bear, Governor. And if you want Americans to believe you are fit to govern, it's a burden you need to assume.
Romney: I believe in the free market, in individualism, not in big government.
Obama: Sure you do. So do I. But I also believe in community. In justice as well as in liberty. It's the balance between them our wisest presidents have always sought. When the individual and the community are in balance, when government helps the market work by regulating its abuses and assuring real competition rather than monopoly, the country is sound. But when the market dominates everything else, when individualism becomes narcissism and if everyone who cares about community is called a socialist, then we risk not just losing our balance. We risk losing our democracy, losing our country. That is the real choice America faces today: between a fair balance of freedom and justice, a judicious mix of markets and government, and a radical runaway egoism that allows a small number of Americans to play winner take all. The party whose candidate you are doesn't seem much interested in a balance or in moderation. That party's extremism -- even if it is not yours -- is putting our democracy at risk. Far as I know, you are still that party's candidate for the presidency.
Romney: In Massachusetts, I worked with the Democrats, but you refuse to work with the Republicans...
Obama: It's hard to work with opponents who say "Anything you are for, we are against. Even when you adopt our ideas." My health plan drew heavily on Republican ideas, including yours. Your party in Congress never gave it a chance, so we had to make it a partisan victory. Leaders of your party said almost before I was in office that their first priority was to deny me a second term. How do I sit down and work with them after that? Actually, I tried. But I guess I wasn't too surprised when it turned out they weren't interested in find middle ground, common ground, where we could work together. Compromise is a two way street. I'll let the voters decide which Party gave up on it.
So, Mr. President, there are still two debates to go. There's still time to put Big Bird and democracy and the responsibility to the truth in front of the American people. And maybe next time around say what you coulda/shoulda said this time. And win.