Who "won" the debate is a question instantly asked in the aftermath of these televised rituals, but with just two weeks left to go, the real question is, who will win the election? And after Monday night's meeting in Boca Raton, Florida, the answer to both questions appears to be the same: "Not Obama."
This has been Mitt Romney's challenge from the outset, to make himself acceptable to the millions of Americans who want to vote for "Not Obama," and his performance in the final debate of the 2012 campaign did nothing to disqualify him. As a result, the Republican challenger remains on a trajectory toward victory on Nov. 6.
Conservative blogger Elizabeth Price Foley summarized President Obama's debate performance in four words: "Snarky, condescending, peevish and small." If undecided voters were eager to embrace whichever candidate could best exemplify smug self-congratulation, Obama won by a landslide. After Romney had referred to the president's "apology tour… going to various nations in the Middle East and criticizing America," Obama shot back: "Nothing Governor Romney just said is true, starting with this notion of me apologizing. This has been probably the biggest whopper that's been told during the course of this campaign. And every fact checker and every reporter who's looked at it, Governor, has said this is not true."
That was the point at which a group of uncommitted voters, doing an instant dial-meter reaction for CNN, recorded its lowest mark for the Democrat incumbent. And despite the emphatic stridency of Obama's denial, as Foley pointed out, the Heritage Foundation has documented Obama's tendency to strike an apologetic posture abroad, as when he went to France in 2009 and declared that "America has shown arrogance and been dismissive," failing "to appreciate Europe's leading role in the world."
Fact-checkers, policy wonks, and spinners for both parties will rate the point-by-point accuracy of each candidate's statements, but such particulars will not change the general impression of Obama as pompously indignant when challenged, lecturing Romney pedantically and often on the verge of dislocating a shoulder while trying to pat himself on the back. It is well known that Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry has been the president's main debate coach, but at times Monday, it seemed that Obama was mimicking the same stuck-up attitude that made Kerry ultimately unacceptable to voters in 2004. Indeed, in trying to portray Romney as a George W. Bush clone, Obama at times seemed to be recycling the Left's anti-war arguments of four or even eight years ago. If Michael Moore, Sean Penn, and Janeane Garofalo were typical of undecided "swing" voters in Ohio, the president's re-election would be assured. Obama was one scream short of being Howard Dean.
The morning shows and cable-news networks are sure to spend a lot of time today replaying the weirdest moment of the debate, when Romney said -- quite accurately -- that the U.S. Navy "is smaller now than at any time since 1917," with fewer ships than the Navy says it needs. To this, Obama replied: "Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military's changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. And so the question is not a game of Battleship, where we're counting ships. "
What in the name of John Paul Jones was this? Did the president sincerely think Romney needed to be told what submarines and aircraft carriers are? Fact-checkers were quick to point out that the Marine Corps still trains with bayonets, but the implication of Obama's remark -- that naval ships are as obsolete as 19th-century horse cavalry and bayonet charges -- was certainly not likely to win him many votes in such swing-state Navy towns as Norfolk, Virginia, and Pensacola, Florida.
There were numerous criticisms of Romney's performance, of course. The GOP challenger was seemingly eager to avoid the appearance of excessive hawkishness. Democrat strategists had signaled their intent to portray him as a warmonger, and Romney refused to help them. And judging from the reaction of liberal commentators in post-debate panels at MSNBC and CNN, Romney also flummoxed Democrats by frequently agreeing with Obama. It seemed obvious that Romney, believing he came into the final debate with sufficient momentum to win, was running the equivalent of a "prevent defense," willing to yield ground and avoid risky confrontations. Thus, Obama was on the attack most of the night against an opponent who, while steadily maintaining his criticisms of the president's policies, refused to be baited into unnecessary fights.
A CNN instant poll of debate viewers showed they graded the match a narrow win for Obama, 48-40, even while the debate had no net impact on survey sample's election preferences. My own method of analysis was to switch over to MSNBC for their post-debate discussion and, as I remarked on Twitter, "Chris Matthews isn't giddy. That means, Romney won."
Does anyone disagree with that assessment? Never mind. Two weeks from now, my opinion will be moot, and the same will be true for all the commentators and moderators and other TV talking heads who have been running their mouths in debate previews and post-debate wrap-ups for the past three weeks. If they were willing to put their money where their mouths are, however, I'd be willing to bet any of them that on Election Day, when the voters have their chance to speak, they'll choose "Not Obama."
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