Conventional wisdom going into last night's debate was that Mitt Romney should cruise, having already decimated the president once. As long as Romney turned in a solid performance, as long as he brought back some of the magic of two weeks ago, Mitt-mentum would keep pushing deeper into the swing states.
Instead the opposite happened. Romney almost became a victim of his own success. Expectations for Barack Obama were so low that there was no question the president would shine. That plus an off-base moderator, a moronic audience, and several questions that seemed lifted from the DNC field manual meant Romney had his work cut out for him.
He was still impressive. But it's a testament to Romney's debating skills that he was able to survive last night's obstacle course.
First the expectations. There was no way Team Obama was ever going to allow a repeat of the last debate, which Romney won according to the highest percentage of voters since 1984. And since the bar was so low, all the president had to do was top his last tongue-tied bumble-fest. He did and the off-key choirs of liberalism are singing his praises. For them, Obama won when he made it through his first sentence without going mute or spontaneously combusting. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
But despite his handicap here, Romney was steady. He didn't overcompensate by arguing picayune details or trying to commandeer the debate. He didn't become angry like Obama did at the end. ("YOU KNOW I MEAN WHAT I SAY!" the president declared after discussing Libya.) Instead he stuck to his arguments and drew the grand contrasts where they mattered.
He also delivered what might be the most illuminating and brutal assessment of the Obama presidency that we've heard all year. "You know these last four years haven't been so good," he began. Then he methodically went through unemployment, food stamps, the deficit, and health premiums. He contrasted all the president's promises with reality before finishing with: "He's great as a speaker and describing his plan and his vision, that's wonderful. But we have a record to look at." I don't think we've yet seen the truths of this election captured that eloquently.
They sure weren't captured by the questioners. Every one of these average Joes claimed to be an undecided voter from New York, and I believe it. Why they selected interlocutors from a state that gave Barack Obama a 27-point victory over John McCain in 2008 is beyond me. Was the entire state of Ohio unavailable? Did Virginia have a thing?
So a questioner voiced concerns over equal pay for women, a Latina asked about DREAM Act immigrants, and a woman wondered how, since Republican George W. Bush singlehandedly ruined the country, Mitt Romney could possibly be different. That's all fine, but there wasn't a single counterbalancing question that could have originated from a conservative point of view.
The most necessary question, left until the end, was about Libya. This was when the entire debate almost fell apart. Obama claimed he'd called the attacks on our embassies "acts of terror" in his day-after Rose Garden press conference. Romney challenged the president, saying it had taken him two weeks to use the term "acts of terror." "Check the transcript!" Obama called out. Candy Crowley then confirmed that the president was right. The audience, apparently half-wits on loan from Jon Stewart's studio, clapped like harp seals in the background.
Crowley was right in that Obama did use the phrase "acts of terror" in his September 12 address. But she muddied the context. Here's the full quote from the Rose Garden speech: "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for." The president used the phrase generally, but not in specific reference to the embassy attacks.
That might seem like semantic parsing, but it has significant meaning given what happened next. Two days later, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney declared that the matter was "under investigation" and "we don't have and did not have concrete evidence to suggest that this was not in reaction to the film [Innocence of Muslims]." Two days after that, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice called the attacks "a direct result of a heinous and offensive video".
As late as 13 days after the attack, the president was speaking with the hostesses of The View, refusing to call anything terrorism.
Crowley, to her credit, later admitted on a CNN panel that Romney's debate answer about Libya was right, though she still said he "picked the wrong word." He didn't. Precise semantics matter in diplomacy. Obama never directly condemned the attacks as terror in the Rose Garden and his aides said the exact opposite. But Crowley tried to fact-check Romney, came up short, and gave left-wing blogs days of laughing gas. ("ROMNEY SHOT DOWN IN DEBATE FACT CHECK" goes the current Huffington Post headline.)
And if Crowley was trying to fact-check, she completely missed invalidating some of the president's whoppers. Romney was unquestionably correct that drilling permits on public lands are down, but Crowley didn't batter Obama when he objected. She also didn't jump in when Obama repeated that Bain Capital invested in "pioneers" of outsourcing, even though Romney wasn't at Bain when most of the outsourcing occurred.
CNN's flash poll found that Obama won the debate by a seven-point margin. But Romney wins in my book for playing strong on a tilted field. It's one thing to debate; it's another thing to debate when the expectations, the moderator, the audience, and the questions are all undermining you.
One final thought: Romney deserves some criticism for abandoning the conservative argument on student loans. During the debate, he pledged to protect Pell Grants and the government's loan program. He let the president get away with bragging that he "cut out the middleman" on student loans by federalizing the whole program. Education prices have ballooned since the creation of the federal lender Sallie Mae and have skyrocketed during Obama's term. I know Romney can't seem unsympathetic to indebted young adults. But this is a real opportunity to explain the failures of social engineering. It's a shame he won't.