It’s difficult to see how Mitt Romney could have been much better than he was in tonight’s debate. Romney was crisp, forcful (without being disrespectful or obnoxious), and almost always on point (especially during the crucial first hour). Most importantly, he was vibrant and even passionate.
I have seen stiff lawyers come alive in a court room (I’ve even been described as having done so myself). To some extent, that’s the phenomenon I think we witnessed tonight. Romney hasn’t really been a stiff during this campaign, as he often was in 2007-08. But the give-and-take with his adversary poured vim, vigor, and authenticity into Romney beyond anything I’ve seen before.
As for Obama, I think he debated fairly well. But he paled in comparison to Romney. The president’s performance was subdued; he was far less inclined to address Romney’s points than Romney was to rebut his; and he tended to ramble. For once, he told the truth when he described himself as an ok debater.
The contrast was particularly apparent in the closing statements. Obama meandered, mentioning a few stories of people he met on the campaign trail and telling us how committed he is to the job. Romney said the election is a choice between two paths and proceeded to itemize the differences. To extend the court room analogy, Obama sounded like a tired lawyer who knows he can’t win the case in his closing argument. In fact, though, I think Obama was just tired and uninspired. I don’t pretend he thinks he will lose the election. Not yet, anyway.
We should also keep in mind that to the extent Obama had good moments — and he had a few — they aren’t likely to persuade people to vote for him. The undecideds have heard Obama sound good before, better than he did tonight. Yet they are still undecided.
To the extent that Romney had good moments — and he had many — they have the potential to win votes. Undecided voters haven’t heard him talk policy before. If he sounded good doing so, and I think it’s indisputable that he did, then he may well have improved his standing with undecided voters.
For this reason, Obama needed to plant doubts about Romney. At times, he didn’t seem up to the challenge. However, in the last half hour, he criticized Romney for lack of detailed proposals across a range of topics that had come up in the debate. The argument is something of a red herring. Romney’s policy positions are, I think, as specific and detailed as is normally the case with a non-incumbent candidate for president. Certainly, Obama didn’t put Obamacare out there as a proposal when he ran for president.
However, Obama’s line of attack will no doubt be picked up by the MSM spinners, and may take root as the new narrative on Romney. It’s a less damaging narrative than the one Obama and the MSM have been pushing, but it may have some resonance.
That’s something to keep an eye in the upcoming debates. But for now, let’s celebrate a brilliant performance by Mitt Romney.