Watching the town-hall debate between President Obama and Governor Romney on Tuesday night, I kept murmuring to myself: "This is unprecedented. No one has ever debated like this before."
The moment the debate ended, the ponderous voice of one the CBS Newsasurauses came on and said: "Ladies and gentlemen, we have just witnessed something historic. The nature of Presidential debate has been transformed forever." My daughter quickly high-fived me, as her faith in Daddy's omniscience was confirmed. Meanwhile, the oldster on the screen - probably kicked in the shins by outraged colleagues -- walked his statement back to an extent, saying only that both sides had set a new record for rancor.
Baloney! This was not historic because of both sides. This was historic because of one side. Namely, Governor Romney, or perhaps -- as one questioner (intentionally?) addressed him -- President Romney. To put it simply, Willard "Mitt" Romney, the Mormon guy, the starched-collar guy, the high-falutin' guy, the out-of-touch guy, the too-polite guy, walked out onto a stage and delivered the best performance in the history of televised debates.
Yes, he was better than my personal hero, Ronald Reagan. Better by a long shot.
To say that he won the debate is to miss the point. He not only emerged victorious on the scoring card, he did it in a fashion which was creative and transformative. Let me try to sketch some of the ways in which he not only gained advantage but he did it by reimagining the possibilities of the format and adapting appropriate methodology.
First of all, he solved the age-old conflict of how to call a President a liar without seeming impudent. This conundrum had bedeviled challengers since the dawn of time. So many times in the past we have seen the Bob Doles and the McCains of the world let the lie fly by while they are too paralyzed by seemliness to take a swat.
Romney solved this with an inventive linguistic approach. Instead of saying something was wrong, he said the inverse of the inverse, something on the order of "How can this be so?"
This brilliant technique gave birth to several memorable slams: "Why the President would cancel that pipeline to Canada I cannot imagine!" "What possible reason they could have had in Fast-and-Furious to send guns to Mexican drug lords is beyond me!"
A second powerful approach, completely unheard of in such forums, was to do the thing dads do to kids who are fudging the story. Romney had previewed that notion in the first debate by comparing Obama's attack mantras to his sons trying to repeat a counterfeit version of events over and over in the hope he would give up being skeptical. This time, he kept asking Obama to repeat the last lie.
"Are you telling us that the day after the Benghazi attack you stood in the Rose Garden and called it an act of terror? Is that what you are saying? Let's get that on the record."
A variation of that was to press, press, press a challenging question, so there was no place to hide. "Have you looked at your pension? Mister President, have you looked at your own pension, because it is invested in China as well, and in companies that outsource jobs?"
He even came up with a good system to defang the strategic cutoffs the liberal debate moderators have long accomplished. This time, when Candy Crowley tried to change a subject after Obama had taken a shot at him, Romney simply said: "I would like to respond to that. It was completely false." In that way, her swerve did not prevent him from getting the message out that he had a good answer. And in self-defense, it is fair etiquette to use 'false' as an adjective.
Before summing up, there is one very important side point which must be mentioned. Namely, for the first time ever -- EVER! -- the moderator periodically allowed questions designed to benefit the Republican. "Mister President, we are told that the embassy in Benghazi had requested more security? Who in your administration turned that down and why?" "Mister President, your Secretary of Energy has stated three times publicly that it is not his job to help lower gas prices. Do you agree with that assessment of his job description and why?" Even the first question by the guy who wants to know why he can't get a job coming out of college plays to Romney's strength.
Trust me when I tell you this: if not for talk radio, Fox News, magazines like this one and the conservative blogs, such questions would never have seen the light of day in a Presidential debate.
All in all, I stand by my assessment. Romney turned in the single greatest debate performance since such skirmishes have been recorded by the camera. Take my advice: run quickly to Intrade and bet the house on Mitt Romney to become the next President of the United States.