The 10 Silliest Explanations for Obama's Bad Debate

After the disaster in Denver, commentators on both sides line up to offer baseless, self-serving speculation.


Here's one area of bipartisan agreement: Barack Obama lost his debate to Mitt Romney Wednesday night. Even the Obama campaign seems unwilling to stake much credibility on claiming otherwise -- instead, spokespeople say that Romney did well by lying, and acknowledge that the president will change tactics before the next meeting in two weeks.

From there, things get messier: Why did Obama lose? There are plenty of reasonable and thoughtful theories. Incumbents tend to be rusty; he's seemed to generally lack enthusiasm for some time; and of course Romney simply outdebated him. And then there are the less reasonable and thoughtful theories. Here are the worst.

1. Theory: Obama Needed a Teleprompter

Proponents: Bill Maher, Charles Krauthammer

The Claim: The liberal comedian wittily takes a conservative talking point and reclaims it for the left. Meanwhile, here's Krauthammer on Fox News: "People say Obama was off his game; this is his game. If you take away a prompter, this is his game," the pundit said on Fox News. Ha! Except, no. Obama has won debates without teleprompters before, and he's given dull speeches with them. Try again, this time with perspective, fellas.

2. Theory: Obama Was on Drugs

Proponent: Matt Drudge

The Claim: The master aggregator, perhaps still smarting from his Obama tape fail, offers a completely speculative opinion. Does Obama seem like an anxious guy? And who in his right mind would take a Valium before a presidential debate?

3. Theory: It Was the Altitude

Proponent: Al Gore

The Claim: On his Current TV broadcast, the former vice president argued that the problem was that Obama hadn't had time to acclimate to the Mile-High City. It's perhaps somewhat plausible, but it's not like he was climbing K2 -- he was in Denver. Besides, he could have been acclimating instead of hitting the Hoover Dam.

4. Theory: It's a Trap!

Proponent: Charles Blow

The Claim: The New York Times columnist's theory is tough to buy. Three problems: First, even if Obama wanted to play rope-a-dope, it's hard to imagine he'd be willing to get so roundly beaten in one of only three debates. Second, there are few words in journalism as worthy of skepticism as "some people suggest." And third, the Russian campaign -- while disastrous for Napoleon -- also resulted in 210,000 Russian deaths, massive destruction of crops, and the catastrophic burning of Moscow. Does Obama really want the equivalent?

5. Theory: Obama Doesn't Watch Enough MSNBC

Proponent: Chris Matthews

The Claim: Here's the host, melting down on Wednesday: "He should watch -- well, not just 'Hardball,' Rachel [Maddow], he should watch you, he should watch the Reverend Al [Sharpton], he should watch Lawrence [O'Donnell], he would learn something about this debate." Self-serving and nonsensical!

6. Theory: Obama Wants to Lose

Proponent: Kevin Baker

The Claim: In an apparent bid to one-up Andrew Sullivan's hysteria Wednesday night, Harper's published a rant by Baker arguing that the president is throwing the election. No, really: "There is no reasonable explanation -- no acceptable explanation -- for such a performance .... Obama signaled that he wants out." Sure, other than the months of frantic campaigning, hundreds of millions of dollars he's raised, and his lead in the polls, that totally adds up, right?

7. Theory: Mitt Cheated

Proponent: Reddit

The Claim: The social-media site's users are in a tizzy, suggesting that Romney was caught on camera pulling an illegal cheat sheet out of his pocket as the debate began. The Romney camp says it's a handkerchief, and there's footage of him using one later on. But even if it hadn't been debunked, the craziest conspiracy theory along these lines doesn't account for the widely acknowledged fact that Obama simply didn't debate well.

8. Theory: It Was Jim Lehrer's Fault

Proponent: Assorted Liberals

The Claim: Almost everyone agrees that moderator Jim Lehrer was a bust (except my colleague Clive Crook and Lehrer himself). But just because he was an ineffective moderator doesn't mean that's why Obama did poorly. Romney adjusted well to a laissez-faire forum; Obama seemed uninterested in or unwilling to assert himself. When Obama aide Jim Messina was asked why his candidate didn't bring up Romney's "47 percent" comments, Messina responded that "it just didn't come up."

9. Theory: Obama Is Lazy

Proponent: John Sununu

The Claim: The Romney surrogate and professional flamethrower went on MSNBC and tossed this grenade: "What people saw last night, I think, was a president that revealed his incompetence, how lazy and detached he is." You can ignore this. He's just trolling.

10. Theory: It Wasn't Mitt

Proponent: Barack Obama

The Claim: Obama had a new riff in his stump speech on Thursday: "It could not have been Mitt Romney because the real Mitt Romney has been running around the country for the last year promising $5 trillion in tax cuts that favor the wealthy. The fellow on stage last night said he didn't know anything about that." Nice try, Mr. President.