I’m not going to spin this: Mitt Romney had a much better debate than the president last night. I’m not sure it was a huge game-changing event like some people claim but Dennis Miller probably had the best analysis of the night when he said, “Obama had better hope that a kicked ass is covered under Obamacare.” That’s a pretty funny line, folks, no matter who you end up voting for.
Look, I’m just a blogger and the president’s campaign staff are all highly paid professionals, so when I say I’m not sure what their strategy was going into last night’s debate, I’m not trying to be critical. I really don’t know, and if I had to choose who should run the campaign, I wouldn’t choose anyone else than Plouffe, Cutter, Axelrod, and Messina. Those people are pretty good at their jobs.
The analogy that I immediately thought of when watching the debate was a “prevent defense” in football, which as any football fan knows, drives the fans of the winning team crazy as the losing team racks up yards and first downs at will. The strategy is basically to give up plays over the middle of the field and keep the clock running, maybe allowing the losing side to score, but not take the lead, as time runs out.
I don’t know if that was the president’s plan but it fits what we saw. It might be that is completely wrong, and the president just really performed poorly. I know a lot of conservatives really want to believe that, but that doesn’t really fit with what we know about his victory in 2008. The president can perform well in debates, as he showed when he beat John McCain in all three of their debates, but in the latter stages of the 2008 primary campaign when the race was pretty much settled, I remember thinking that Hillary Clinton performed much better than Obama did.
My biggest problem with a prevent defense by the Obama campaign is that I am not interested in a narrow victory for the president. I want the president to win decisively, beyond any reasonable doubt or specious claims of voter fraud, and I want him to have coattails. I want to hold the Senate. I’d like to have a chance at retaking the House. That probably will not happen with a prevent defense, although Chicago might be correct that it increases the president’s chance of victory. (And again, neither I nor any of the talking heads on TV have any idea if that is really what the strategy was.)
Before yesterday there were stories running about the Romney campaign being in disarray and that big donors were reluctant to keep giving money to a lost cause. The big SuperPACs were considering dropping their support for Romney and focusing on congressional campaigns instead. After last night, the story will be that the game has changed, donors will be giving money to Romney again, and Karl Rove will go back to attacking the president.
I will say that I was watching the debate while my wife was in the other room listening to it while she worked on a project. About halfway through the debate she walked in and said, “Obama is killing him. Romney is terrible.” I was surprised because as I was watching it, I was getting more and more agitated as I thought Obama was letting Romney off the hook too often.
Richard Nixon famously lost the first-ever televised debate supposedly because he had been sick and refused to wear makeup and he looked tired and angry compared to John Kennedy. The apocryphal(?) story is that voters who listened to the debate on the radio thought that Nixon had won the debate, while TV viewers of course thought Kennedy had won. I’m not convinced that’s what happened last night, because my wife is a pretty small sample size, and she’s also a liberal Democrat like me, so perhaps a little biased. I think Unskewedpolls.com would question the veracity of the “Wiesman Wife Poll” and probably be right, for once.
Conservatives who are giddy this morning (and they have a reason to be happy, for sure) should also remember that in 2004, John Kerry beat George W. Bush handily in the first debate, closing a gap in the polls, and still lost. One debate does not make or break a campaign, especially if there are more to follow.
Still: it was not the debate I was hoping for.