Obama got Eastwooded last night. Or should we say Romney took Obama to the Eastwoodshed? (Hat tip to Bob Owens for the imagery here.)
Last night was one of those nights when it is really fun to watch MSNBC. There’ve been many of those—the 2002 midterm election (though James Carville putting the paper bag over his head on CNN that night was something to savor, too), the 2004 election, and the 2010 midterm election—but last night was so off-the-chart delicious that I think we need to invent a new multi-syllabic German word for it: how about Matthewsmaddowschultzenfreude?
There are some lessons here. Remember how lots of people wanted Newt Gingrich as the nominee because he’d tear up Obama, and the media while he’s at it? The trouble with that view is that Newt’s abrasiveness turns off a lot of people in the middle. I’ve wondered for a while whether Romney’s Mr. Roger’s demeanor might actually play well in debate for the simple reason that his more gentle manner can deliver attacks without arousing the visceral dislike of the many people who hate the rancor of politics today. Paul noted yesterday that Romney should play to the middle without sacrificing the conservative base. He did that cleverly in several small ways. His mention of the Tenth Amendment, his pledge to make PBS pledge drives even worse by cutting off PBS funding (that was a nice twist), and several others. In other words, Romney was rhetorically effective with the swath of independent voters who don’t necessarily share an axiomatic dislike of the federal government, but who are winnable. Plus, Romney’s canned attack lines were delivered such that they didn’t seem canned. Did you notice, by the way, his sly manner of the Solyndra attack: “a friend said to me . . . you pick losers.” Finally, I’ve always been put off by Romney’s affected stammer at the beginning of many of his topic paragraphs. There was much less of that last night. Romney’s commanding fluidity subtly highlighted Obama’s genuine stammer.
Obama is now in a box. His foam-flecked fanboys at MSNBC and the rest of the media will be demanding Romney’s blood on the floor at the next debate. If Obama’s demeanor in the next debate is noticeably different (and how can it not be?), he risks looking like the erratic Al Gore of 2000. Even if he attacks aggressively, the nation is now seeing what close watchers have seen from the beginning: under pressure and without a teleprompter, Obama isn’t very good. (I kept expecting Obama to look at his wristwatch to see how much longer his agony had to go.) And there is the risk that Obama and the Democratic attack machine will repeat the error of Jimmy Carter against Ronald Reagan in 1980, with attacks that will backfire on Obama’s asset as a likeable person.
By the way, I liked the way both Obama and Romney ran all over Jim Lehrer. It actually let both men argue directly against and at each other. Hopefully this will be the precedent for the remaining debates.