10/17/2012 11:06 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Obama Wins the Debate, But Not on Substance


In a presidential debate, as in boxing, to dethrone the reigning champion, you can't win on points. You must knock your opponent out, without biting off his ear.

In the first presidential debate between Republican Mitt Romney and Democrat Barack Obama, Romney scored a clear, decisive victory on points. He didn't knock out the president. However, he won nearly every round, by almost every measure of style and substance. Almost all Republicans, most Independents, and even a plurality of Democrats thought that during the first debate Obama seemed weak, passive and overmatched on policy, rhetoric, affect, strategy and ability.

Mr. Obama and his able Svengalis vowed that the president would roar back stronger in the second debate. And he did.

Nevertheless, before I get into specifics, let me say that I never thought the president was as bad as portrayed after the first debate, nor as convincingly strong during the second debate as the mainstream media today proclaim. No doubt, in the conventional wisdom, the gap between the two performances was so pronounced that Obama had to be declared the winner based on sheer improvement.

However, a proper presidential election -- where the candidates possess a modicum of intelligence and accomplishment -- is not decided like some lame feel-good debate tournament, where the top 20 debaters get a trophy simply for showing up. When you are running to be the leader of the free world, you have to earn it. Not just show up with some platitudes, and then delegate the heavy lifting to your spinmeisters and ad strategists.

By most objective measures of presidential performance, Mr. Obama has not empirically earned a second term. Yes, the president inherited a whale of an economic mess, brought on primarily by the loose lending policies of both parties. Nevertheless, the rate of economic improvement on his watch has been demonstrably unimpressive. As Mitt Romney intones ad nauseam: job growth has been anemic, and has not kept up with population growth; incomes have stagnated; Food Stamp rolls have soared to their highest level since LBJ; 50 percent of students graduating college cannot find work; and 23 million Americans are either out of work, have given up looking for work, or are trying to subsist on low-paying part-time work not even in their chosen field. Most damning of all, U.S. GDP growth keeps trending downwards. This year it's worse than last year. Last year it was worse than the year before. Not the kind of "hope and change" the country expected when it elected Mr. Obama in 2008.

As Mitt Romney never fails to mention, it "doesn't have to be this way."

Mr. Romney is right. When he methodically, persuasively and concisely catalogs the president's record of economic mediocrity, the governor is unassailable. He then caps off his scathing indictment with a proven plan to broaden the tax base, while lowering tax rates for everyone, without lowering the actual tax burden of the richest five percent (by prioritizing the elimination of their tax deductions first). It's an ingeniously meaty adaptation of many of the recommendations from Simpson-Bowles that is a far cry from Obama's broad caricature of it. Moreover, it's based on the principle of making America more attractive for business and investors, while cracking down on Chinese currency manipulation and intellectual property infringement.

The post-debate polls showed conclusively that the Romney critique and solvency is a winning combination that more and more Americans are buying, especially in key swing states. The subconscious Romney narrative, however, goes like this. "The President is a decent man, a caring man, a devoted family man. In addition, his election was an historic milestone for this nation. However, elections are not just about symbolism. They are about results. Though Barack Obama has tried to make things better, though he beautifully articulates his vision for America, he has empirically failed in practice. You are not a racist because you now want to elect a new President who's actually grown jobs and income in the private sector and as a governor."

When Romney sticks to the themes that extend out from this core message of Obama the "Wispy Wealth-Demonizing Community Organizer" versus "Romney the Can-Do Alpha Dog Job Creator," he wins. And when you throw in his adroit distancing from G.W. Bush's failed policies on energy independence, debt and small business job growth -- and his surprise promise to eliminate all taxes on dividends, interest and capital gains for those making less than $200,000 a year -- he's got a distinctively subtle, smart and unbeatable hand.

Because, as much as Mr. Obama wants this election to be about fair pay, student loans, health care access and clean energy, it's about jobs, income, taxes and debt. And there's basically nothing that Obama can effectively say on those issues, except to trot out shopworn falsehoods about Romney's time at Bain, sideshows about "binders" and "Big Bird," and broad misrepresentations of Romney's economic plan that bear little resemblance to reality.

If Mitt Romney had stayed laser focused on this larger narrative of Obama failure and Romney redemption, he would have scored a knockout punch Tuesday night at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. With early voting continuing apace, a knockout punch would have irreversibly altered the trajectory of the presidential race, no matter how Obama fared in the final debate. It happened to both Al Gore and Michael Dukakis after their second debates. And Jimmy Carter was well on his way to a similar fate against Ronald Reagan.

Instead of that seemingly inevitable result, Romney made the classic novice debater blunder: he tried to win every single argument, no matter how small or off-topic. Moreover, he got persnickety and annoying on extremely esoteric points of debate protocol and policy fact. For example, on whether Obama decreased drilling permits on federal lands. Thanks to Romney's physically imposing persistence on this point -- during which the governor essentially moved right up into the president's grill, causing one to wonder whether the Secret Service or feisty Joe Biden would leap onto the stage to protect the president -- Mr. Obama was able to turn a minor point to his big advantage by arguing that he told energy companies to "use or lose" their permits.

But then Romney got extra aggro over whether Obama had looked at his pension statement. Obama is not much of a businessman, as we all know. I have this feeling he doesn't assiduously pore over any investment record.

Romney was clearly right on this particular. That is, Obama is hypocritical when he attacks Romney for aiding and abetting Chinese companies when it is transparently obvious that anyone who invests in broad-based mutual funds is probably invested in Chinese firms. After all, emerging market funds have generated the highest level of returns over the last two decades. If Obama was not invested in high-growth Chinese companies via some emerging market mutual fund or ETF, he should sue his broker for financial malpractice.

But, instead of making that case, Mr. Romney hammered on the incidental question of whether the president had studied his pension statement. It was overkill. And it allowed the president to deliver his one true "gotcha" moment of the night, as he satirized alpha dog Romney's sizable pension portfolio. A cheap populist shot that worked because of Romney's over-amped demeanor. I would call it a rope-a-dope move, except, unlike the pioneer of that boxing technique, the great Muhammad Ali, it was not intentional. Rather, an out-of-control Romney walked into an Obama counterpunch.

It's a theme that continued throughout the evening, particularly when Romney willfully served up a closing statement softball for Obama on whether Romney would govern for "100 percent" of Americans. Oops.

However, Romney gave Obama his greatest gift of all on an issue that should have sealed the deal for the GOP "standard-bearer." The president has long argued that his conciliatory approach to the Mideast has improved security in that region. Then came the 9/11/2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The existential fact of that attack -- and the gruesome death of our ambassador there -- undercut the president's Mideast narrative. The president, in fact, delayed for two weeks explicitly telling the American public that this was a "terrorist act." I, at first, credited this mislabeling as a testament to the president's signature caution. He wanted to get the facts right.

Only one problem: facts were leaking out daily that this was a coordinated terrorist attack, definitely not inspired by any YouTube video, and planned specifically for the anniversary of 9/11. Ouch.

The president's Benghazi response constituted a series of PR and policy blunders that set up one heckuva knockout punch. And, sure enough, Romney was served up a softball question on Benghazi on Tuesday night. His answer should have been simple and direct. First, it is outrageous that security was so lax at any U.S. consulate or embassy, but especially in the Al-Qaeda-ridden Mideast, and especially on 9/11. Almost every clear-thinking American, no matter what their party, was deeply disturbed by this tragedy.

Moreover, most Americans are rightfully outraged by the president's failure to protect the Benghazi consulate. We want to know why the consulate was not better fortified. We want to know why requests for those fortifications were denied or ignored. And we want to know why, if the president was in his cautious, measured, lawyerly mode, his U.N. Ambassador was on all the major TV talk shows denying that this was a terrorist attack five days after the president allegedly said it was a terrorist attack.

Well, in that now-infamous Rose Garden speech of September 12, the president talked generally about "terror" against the backdrop of the attacks of 9/11/2001. However, he clearly did not single out the Benghazi attack as an unequivocal terrorist attack. In addition, at Tuesday night's debate, the president repeated the lie that he had unequivocally called the Benghazi attack an act of terror on September 12.

Mitt Romney could have put the president flat on the virtual canvass by telling you what I just wrote. However, he did not do that. He was overconfident, pompous and combative on a subtle point of language where he was not as rock-solid on his details as he needed to be.

Now, it's very possible that in the days ahead the president will be shown to have deliberately mislead the American public about Benghazi in order to shield himself from blame during the height of a reelection campaign. However, what matters in the polls is how this issue played during last night's debate. Sure, the president got a helpful, if untruthful, assist from CNN moderator Candy Crowley, much to conservative pundits' chagrin. Nevertheless, by aggressively calling out the president on the small ball matter of language (which plays right into the president's constitutional lawyer wheelhouse), instead of stating the obvious point about why in heck the consulate was breached in the first place, Governor Romney let the president slip away unscathed.

I say all of this because, instead of closing out this election Tuesday night with a decisive TKO, Mitt Romney got lost in the weeds. Not because of anything special that the president did. But because of the governor's fulsome desire to dominate every single issue in the debate, however picayune. By overplaying his hand, Romney allowed the deft, if defenseless, Obama to charm his way back into the hearts of swing voters, while revving up his base. In an election that will come down to the ground game, such enthusiasm is key.

Therefore, this debate coach scores the second presidential debate a tie. Romney won on policy, but lost on style. And, as in boxing, so in presidential debates: a tie goes to the reigning champ.

Romney must come back less cocky, rude and abrasively confrontational in Monday's final debate -- without losing his commanding "presidential" mojo -- or he risks throwing away an election he can easily win.

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