After the debate last night, I clicked over to MSNBC where I was treated to an intriguing sight: Chris Matthews having an aneurysm live on the air. Here's a rough transcript from my notes:
"Well this wasn't an MSNBC debate was it! … Obama adored the debate rather than participate in it! … Romney wrote off half the country! … You know where we're having a debate?! Here!! On this network!!!! … What was Romney doing tonight?! HE WAS WINNING!!! … OBAMA SHOULD WATCH MSNBC!! HE WILL LEARN SOMETHING EVERY NIGHT ON THIS SHOW!!!"
Yes, if only the president watched a network that doesn't allow on Republicans, he would have been in great shape for his debate with a Republican.
Still, I understand some of the spittle. Mitt Romney was a master presenter last night. He drove the agenda and controlled the discussion topics. He effectively portrayed himself as a private-sector problem solver. He cast President Obama as a failed statist technocrat without appearing angry.
After a tough campaign season he badly needed a third down conversion and last night he played it magnificently. (Football metaphors are some of the most exhausted and clichéd devices in political writing. But it's 11 at night, Romney was great, and my Patriots won last weekend. So indulge me.)
The most resounding criticism of Romney has been that he lacks the principles and passion needed for a presidential campaign. Last night he didn't necessarily assuage those fears. Instead he came off as the earnest pragmatist searching around for the best ideas. He'd watched the failures of big government under President Obama and was on the hunt for something better. It's not necessarily what conservatives were looking for, but in the context of a televised debate, it worked.
His strongest issue was one that's often peripheral: energy. He blew apart President Obama's talking point on oil by pointing out that all the drilling increases were on private, not public, land. He pledged to build the Keystone XL Pipeline and drill in Alaska. When the president hauled out the old trope about tax breaks for oil companies, he pointed out that they only amounted to $2.8 billion every year. He attacked Obama's green-energy handouts over and over again.
On taxes, he repeatedly brought up the president's tax increases on small businesses that employ the lion's share of American workers. He proudly defended keeping new taxes out of any deficit deal: "The idea of taxing people more, putting people out of work, you'll never get there." He called the deficit an intergenerational and moral issue.
His best line came when the president mentioned supposed tax loopholes for companies that ship jobs overseas. "I've been in business for 25 years. I have no idea what you're talking about," he said. Ka-zing.
Health care was probably his weakest issue. Romney attacked a few of Obamacare's provisions, especially the independent patient advisory board. But he still didn't slice off the law's most urgent and dangerous limb: the tax on medical devices that goes into effect at the beginning of next year. Still he held his own and got in the necessary lines about competition and government mandates.
Throughout it all, the president looked nervous and erratic, grinning one second at a serious comment by Jim Lehrer, then scowling as Romney scored a point. The man whose dark-arts team ran an ad accusing Romney of killing a man's wife seemed cowed in his opponent's presence.
Other times Obama came off as cold and condescending. "If you're 50 or 55, you might want to listen," he said at one point, "because this will affect you." He was less the barrel-chested leader of the free world and more the lecturer with all the frown-face scores on RateMyProfessor.com.
Romney, on the other hand, was loose and engaging. The least interactive politician in the GOP connected last night. Perhaps his strongest moments were those when he broke down how complex issues were affecting the average pocketbook, explaining why Medicare cuts would see seniors denied at hospitals and nursing homes, or how Dodd-Frank was drying up mortgage loans.
The currents that animated Romney's case were states' rights and competitive markets. Thus the power to fight poverty should be devolved to the states and Romneycare was an experiment devised in Massachusetts' democratic laboratory. Private accounts can work for Medicare because they create competition and ultimately the best economy is a capitalist one.
All this was contrasted with the cold, invasive, lumbering federal government, represented in the debate by President Obama. Romney made the comparison well and Obama did little to respond.
The president stayed afloat during the campaign by constantly tossing out distractions. We've slogged through the war on women, gay marriage, Bain Capital, allegations of tax fraud, and Romney's alleged commission of a first-degree murder. Throughout it all, Romney's seemed stuck in neutral, unwilling or unable to shift the focus.
But debates are naturally substantive affairs. Obama can't respond to a question on the deficit by pointing to the side and yelling, "Look, free birth control!" (Although he did lamely bring up tax breaks on corporate jets at one point.) Instead the president actually had to address economic reality, which he's been fastidiously avoiding for the past ten months.
On CNN after the debate, John King wondered why the president didn't talk up his usual points about how the economic looter Romney would hurt people and communities. The answer is: that was all a façade to begin with. President Obama has run a campaign thoroughly devoid of substance. Last night, Romney came armed with substance and the difference was clear.
It's always hard to know how people will react to debates. (Although Chris Matthews, currently strapped to a table somewhere, was pretty easy to predict.) But as our own John Tabin pointed out last night, about a quarter of voters say the presidential debates could affect their vote. It's hard to imagine Romney not seeing a modest bounce after tonight.
We've still got a long way to go. But given all the recent gloom about Romney's poll numbers, last night was a great kickoff for the last month of the campaign.
All right, no more football.
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