Thursday, October 4, 2012

Missed Opportunities

Maybe the football analogy was, in hindsight, a poor choice.  What happened more closely resembled a rusty hockey team that got caught flatfooted by a team that was fresh off a rousing seven game vanquishing of an inferior opponent.

But whatever your preference - football, hockey, rugby, shuffleboard - this much is true, Mitt Romney cleaned Barack Obama's clock in Denver last night.  To reach any other conclusion is to simply ignore the evidence.

Please spare me all the etch-a-sketch, lack of details, stomach-churning lies that the former governor of Massachusetts spun like a magician.  If facts had any place in politics, five out of the last eight presidential elections might've turned out far differently that they did. Facts only mean something if you can make a compelling case for them.  Ask Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry about facts.  Like they say in Manhattan that and a subway token will get you a ride on the 7th Avenue Express.

Debates are not conventions.  Conventions are typically attended and watched by political junkies who, quite honestly, desperately need a hobby.  The overwhelming majority of the attendees and viewers are people who are already drinking the Kool-Aid.  They hardly need any prodding.

Debates, however, are altogether different.  Typically the attendees and viewers of these events are more moderate and open to persuasion. They are far more likely to watch Two and a Half Men than either MSNBC or Fox News.  When they watch CNN at all it's usually about some celebrity who got into trouble for the umpteenth time.  Last night millions of them tuned in looking for two things: 1. whether Mitt Romney was worth taking a second look at; and 2. whether Barack Obama had made the case for a second term.

Let's just be polite and say "yes" to 1 and "the jury's still out" on 2.  That's as kind as I can be given that I watched the whole debacle.

But as bad as Obama's performance was, what struck me most was how good Romney's was.  The prevailing logic going in to this debate was that the only way Romney could win was to drag Obama down and level the playing field.  Karl Rove 101.

That didn't happen last night.  Amazingly, Romney came across as almost likeable and somewhat charming.  He praised the President and took the high road.  By comparison Obama seemed pissed that he was even on the same stage as Romney.  And it clearly showed. The long-awaited pivot to the center that many pundits had been wondering if the Republican nominee would or could make suddenly materialized.  It was as though it was 2002 and Romney was running for governor of Massachusetts.  To be honest, it caught me off guard.  I suspect the same happened to the President.

This was not the Mitt Romney who ran to the right of Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich - as though that were even possible - during the primaries.  Far from it.  He was channeling one part Reagan, one part Eisenhower, one part Teddy Roosevelt.  Not even Houdini could've pulled off such a feat.

Of course the reason Romney got away with his magic act was because Obama let him.  Make no mistake about it, opportunity after opportunity presented itself to the President last night.  And almost without exception he punted each time - there's that football analogy again. Indeed Obama did a better job debating Jim Lehrer than his rival.  David Frum summed it up best:

Romney arrived with a strategic plan; Obama didn’t.
Romney was quick on his feet; Obama slow on his feet.
Romney showed EQ as well as IQ; Obama didn’t.

The good news is that the election is still a month away and there will be three more debates.  The bad news is that Barack Obama - who, prior to yesterday, had complete control of this contest - is now in for the fight of his political life against an opponent who can now exhale after having the worst three months any candidate could imagine.


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