Well. So much for "a Biden-class knack for sounding stupid," as I remarked about Romney a few hours ago. He won the first debate going away. You have to wonder, if Romney's such a weak candidate, as I have long maintained, what does that make Obama?
No attempted zingers, contrary to forecasts, which was wise on the challenger's part. (Or perhaps there were some, only so lame they escaped detection. Trickle-down government. Maybe that was a zinger.) His joke about having five sons and being accustomed to hearing endless repetition of the same bogus claim was funny (don't you think?) and if it was rehearsed didn't seem so. Who knew that Romney was capable of gentle wit? He seemed, despite everything, relaxed, confident, and above all in charge. He gave the impression of having the facts at his command. Often enough that was a false impression, but Obama never came close to showing it. The president was stammering and hesitant, and frequently looked out of his depth. Romney's performance wasn't brilliant, just good, but that made it brilliant relative to expectations. The greater shock, amplifying Romney's success, was that Obama was so bad.
Maybe this is what four years of being surrounded by sycophants does for you.
Again and again, he missed open goals. He let Romney say that he, Romney, would take better care of entitlements than Obama would. Incredible. He watched as his attack on Romney's tax proposal kept bouncing off, until he looked feeble for repeating it. Why on earth didn't he force Romney to say which deductions would be removed to pay for the lower rates? He let Romney boast about his Massachusetts health care plan and in the same breath denounce Obamacare (to all intents and purposes, the same policy). Romney's argument about letting states be laboratories is tactically clever, and there's something to it, but surely Obama could have asked why Romney doesn't at least advocate Romneycare to the rest of the country. The president remembered to criticize insurance companies but (unless I missed it) forgot to mention that Obamacare is mainly about covering 50 million people who, you know, don't have health insurance. He let Romney attack him for failing to cut deals with the GOP, as though Republicans would have compromised if only they'd been talked to politely. In response, Obama meekly referred to Republican intransigence, but threw the comment away. That was a chance to lay the blame for paralysis in Washington on Romney's party, where it mostly belongs. And what about the 47 percent--about moochers, dependents, people whom Romney won't ever convince to be responsible, this nation of parasites? Hardly worth mentioning, I suppose.
I see some people are criticizing Jim Lehrer for failing to moderate. Nonsense. He was great. Give that man a MacArthur genius award or a Pulitzer or something. All debates should be moderated this way. Step back and let the candidates argue with each other. It's revealing, much as Obama on this occasion may regret it. There was far more substantive engagement on issues -- or the opportunity for it, at any rate -- than the usual preening-moderator formats allow. Surely Democrats don't think the president needed the protection of a moderator to get his points across. He had all the time in the world. CNN says he was at the microphone for longer than Romney. It's just that he made such poor use of it.
Hard to say whether it will matter. Certainly, for at least a few days it will perturb the air of inevitability that had begun to surround Obama's second term. That was likely due for a rethink anyway: With weeks still to go, the prevailing narrative needed a twist. But nobody who saw the debate is going to buy the idea that Romney was declared the winner because the media were getting bored. He won, and it wasn't close. It ought to be a tonic for both sides. This thing isn't over after all.