How decisively did Mitt Romney win Wednesday night's debate? All you had to do was watch the most pro-Obama network to see it. "I personally do not know who won this debate," MSNBC's Rachel Maddow said as soon as the debate ended. She was obviously the only one who didn't know.
When Maddow brought on her colleague Ed Schultz, he moaned that President Obama "created a problem for himself tonight on Social Security. He agreed with Mitt Romney.… I thought he was off his game." Nor did the president's performance send a thrill up the leg of Chris Matthews. "I don't know what he was doing out there," Matthews complained. "He had his head down. He was enduring the debate rather than fighting it."
If ever there were a night when conservatives wanted to watch MSNBC, this was it -- an all-you-can-eat buffet of schadenfreude, as one after another of the liberal network's personalities tried to come to grips with what was perhaps the most one-sided presidential debate since JFK beat a shifty-looking Richard Nixon in 1960. "In terms of debate tactics, Romney was on the offense most of the night," a glum Howard Fineman acknowledged, while a shell-shocked Chuck Todd admitted that the result "automatically elevates Romney as a credible alternative" and later added, in reference to the Obama camp's post-debate mood: "They know they lost tonight."
Everybody knew it. The "flash" polls after the debate by CBS and CNN both showed that viewers scored it a win for Romney by better than 2-to-1 margins. John Hinderaker at the conservative Powerline blog said, "It wasn't a TKO, it was a knockout. Mitt Romney was in control from the beginning. He was the alpha male, while Barack Obama was weak, hesitant, stuttering, often apologetic." A similar view was shared by one of Obama's most ardent fans in the blogosphere, Andrew Sullivan, who called the debate "a disaster for the president." Sullivan derided the president's "effete, wonkish lectures," and concluded: "Obama looked tired, even bored; he kept looking down; he had no crisp statements of passion or argument; he wasn't there. He was entirely defensive, which may have been the strategy. But it was the wrong strategy. At the wrong moment."
The wrong moment for the Democratic incumbent perhaps, but absolutely perfect for Romney, who came into the debate after enduring a month-long media beatdown on his campaign. All the criticisms of the Republican convention, all the furor over the "secret video," all the polls portending doom for Romney -- all of this negativity became suddenly irrelevant in the wake of the GOP challenger's decisive debate victory. Romney took charge from the outset, reacting to Obama's opening barrage of accusations about taxes. "I'd like to clear up the record and go through it piece by piece," Romney said. "First of all, I don't have a $5 trillion tax cut."
After defending himself, Romney then pivoted to focus onto Obama's own economic record. "Under the president's policies, middle-income Americans have been buried. They're just being crushed. Middle-income Americans have seen their income come down by $4,300. This is a tax in and of itself. I'll call it the economy tax. It's been crushing. At the same time, gasoline prices have doubled under the president. Electric rates are up. Food prices are up. Health care costs have gone up by $2,500 a family."
It was these facts which flummoxed Obama. He kept trying to talk about his plans for the next four years, but Romney kept hammering the president's record during the past four years, which undermined Obama's credibility whenever he offered proposals for the future. This reality -- that the president's policies have been an abject failure -- did not seem to register with Obama's supporters on MSNBC, who afterwards complained about their man's listless performance and also tried to blame moderator Jim Lehrer's handling of the debate.
Admittedly, Romney scored points for style. He was aggressive, clear and specific and, in the superficial calculus by which candidates are measured in the TV age, he certainly looked presidential. Yet the style would have done Romney little good if he had not also delivered substance. "You raise taxes and you kill jobs," he replied to Obama at one point. "That's why the National Federation of Independent Businesses said your plan will kill 700,000 jobs. I don't want to kill jobs in this environment." Later, Romney accused the president of a "trickle-down government approach, which has government thinking it can do a better job than free people pursuing their dreams. And it's not working. And the proof of that is 23 million people out of work. The proof of that is 1 out of 6 people in poverty. The proof of that is we've gone from 32 million on food stamps to 47 million on food stamps. The proof of that is that 50 percent of college graduates this year can't find work."
These are simply facts and, in a setting where Romney could point out the facts of Obama's record directly to the people -- with no intervening media filter -- the one-sided nature of the debate perhaps shouldn't have surprised anyone as much as it did. But the surprise was entirely pleasant for Romney's supporters, including Reason magazine's Matt Welch: "That wasn't a debate so much as Mitt Romney just took Obama for a cross country drive strapped to the roof of his car."
It will not be easy for the president to bounce back quickly from his debate debacle. The next scheduled debate is Oct. 11 between Vice President Joe Biden and Romney's running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, and Obama won't meet Romney again until Oct. 16. In the meantime, Romney can expect to be riding a sudden surge of momentum, while the incumbent Democrat will just as suddenly find himself plagued by the same kind of gloomy poll numbers and naysaying criticisms that had hitherto been Romney's problem. Of all the turnarounds Romney accomplished in his career at Bain Capital, perhaps none was so significant as the one he pulled off in 90 minutes last night.