Debate 'Cold' Reaction: Yes, Romney Can Debate

By James Fallows

I argued in my Atlantic story last month that Mitt Romney was better at debating than he was at any other aspect of campaigning, and that Barack Obama, famed and redoubtable orator, was worse.

Anyone feel like disagreeing with that, after the past 90 minutes?

I am not talking about whether I agree with the two candidates' positions. Obviously I agree more with Obama, and I believe that more of his facts and assertions are "true." I am talking about crispness in presenting positions within the constraints of this particular format, and the air of overall ease in the encounter.

If you had the sound turned off, Romney looked calm and affable through more of the debate than Obama did, and the incumbent president more often looked peeved. Romney's default expression, whether genuine or forced, was a kind of smile; Obama's, a kind of scowl. I can understand why Obama would feel exasperated by these claims and arguments. Every president is exasperated by what he considers facile claims about what he knows to be impossibly knotty problems. But he let it show.

It's a good thing for Barack Obama that there are a couple more debates ahead.

Maybe in prep sessions for the next ones they'll give him a comeback to Mitt Romney's multiply repeated "cut $716 billion from Medicare" line, which is that the Ryan/Romney plan CUTS THOSE $716 BILLION AND MORE. (Why, exactly, did we not hear that from Obama each time Romney used the number?)

It's also good for Obama that "normal" people were probably tuning out halfway through.

In my article I also argued that challengers predictably "exceeded expectations" and seemed to score points in their initial debate with an incumbent president. Moreover, they were elevated simply by being matched on equal footing with the president. Anyone want to disagree with that?

Find some GIFs of the debate -- as I am sure The Atlantic Wire's Elspeth Reeve will do -- and test  them against this account from my article about the primaries:

Civics teachers won't want to hear this, but the easiest way to judge "victory" in many debates is to watch with the sound turned off, so you can assess the candidates' ease, tenseness, humor, and other traits signaled by their body language. By this standard, Ron Paul, with his chronically ill-fitting suits, often looked cranky; Rick Santorum often looked angry; Rick Perry initially looked pole­axed and confused; Jon Huntsman looked nervous; Newt Ging­rich looked overexcited--and so on through the list until we reach Mitt Romney, who almost always looked at ease. (As did Herman Cain, illustrating that body language is not everything.) Romney looked like the grown-up--the winner, the obvious candidate--with or without sound.

Again, I don't think this first debate is likely to change a huge number of votes. But from my own parochial perspective, I do feel better about my assessment. And I know what the next stage in campaign narrative -- "Romney comeback!" -- is going to be. Perhaps also this will give more leverage to Obama associates to sit him down and say: Look, you can be beat.

I've written this without seeing anyone else's liveblog, or Twitter feed, or TV commentary. Now I'll check the Internet and see what I've gotten wrong.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/10/debate-cold-reaction-yes-romney-can-debate/263225/