Last night’s big television event was a game changer and folks in the state of Massachusetts might have been able to predict the outcome. Yes, the Yankees unsurprisingly defeated the Boston Red Sox 14-2, but residents of Beantown and the Bay State might have also known that their former governor, Mitt Romney, could pull one out in a clinch during his first presidential debate against President Barack Obama.
And win this one, he did. As much as it pains me to say this, I think this first debate was one Romney could consider as a feather in his cap.
Romney headed into the first debate of the horse race a few lengths behind the president. Surprisingly, he’d been polling lower in swing states like Ohio and on topics like the economy. For a guy who on good days is thought to be robotic, on bad days makes gaffes at home and abroad, Romney didn’t need to do much to exceed expectations of his debate performance. No wonder he came out feisty—he brought his A-game, was confident—and even a little disrespectful at times.
Watching Romney often scold the president over the course of an hour-and-a-half and trying unsuccessfully on occasion to mask his smirk, he came across as bold in his challenge to the incumbent, but with an underlying bratty tone. There was the moment he seemed to be calling the president a child, when he compared Obama to his five sons. When Romney accused the president of inaccurately portraying many of his platform’s plans and ideas (like the $5 billion deficit reduction, energy spending and Medicare cuts) Romney seemed more to be saying, “Liar, liar, pants on fire!”
Somehow, even though he seemed to look at the president throughout the night as if he were saying, “You silly child,” Romney held his own.
His biggest zing of the night was when he reminded viewers of his own business experience and simultaneously painted Obama as clueless: "I've been in business for 25 years, I have no idea what you're talking about... the idea that you get a break for shipping jobs overseas is just not the case."
Romney’s second best win of the night? His criticism of Obama’s putting healthcare ahead of employment: “Why focus two years on health care when you could have focused two years on jobs?”
Missed Opportunities for Obama
In contrast, the Commander in Chief had a lot more trouble even getting on the scoreboard. What happened to the guy who can usually command the room as he did when he crooned the opening line of "Let's Stay Together."
Last night his demeanor conveyed that he was more irritated to be there. Even though what Obama has mapped out for economic recovery is more solid for the long term than a Romney plan designed to get the country on a sugar-high rebound, the tone of the annoyed lecturer didn’t win him anything. He could hardly look at Romney during the challenger’s rebuttals and seemed honestly surprised to be challenged—an experience he probably doesn’t have very often in the Oval Office.
Obama wasted his best opportunity to confront Romney in person with the biggest weaknesses the challenger has shown: there was no mention of the 47 percent, Bain Capital or tax returns. It was clear where the two candidates differed on the few domestic policy issues Jim Lehrer brought up, but I don’t think we learned anything we didn’t already know. And it just seemed that Obama ceded too much ground, failing on even one of his strongest tools—his ability to connect with Americans. He couldn’t even summon up any genuinely warm, fuzzy feelings at the moment which could have been his most human—wishing his wife Michelle a happy 20th anniversary.
Winners and Losers
There were other big winners and losers last night.
Loser: Jim Lehrer The moderator lost control of the debate from moment one. He let the candidates overstep their time limits and couldn’t keep them in line. There were no substantive challenges to anything either one of them said and it seemed as if he sleepwalked through the hour-and-a-half.
Winner: Big Bird When candidate Romney said one of the first things he’d do as President is end any subsidizing of PBS, adding “Sorry, Big Bird,” a nation collectively shouted out, “No.” Twitter activity jumped enough that Big Bird trended the rest of the night and fake accounts like @FiredBigBird sprang up and won thousands of followers before the debate was over. Romney does like to fire people, but he might have to rethink this one.
Loser: Women At no point did either candidate mention women’s healthcare. Abortion, contraception and similar topics never cracked the top 10 subjects let alone any. Given how much women voters might change the course of where the swing states swing, I would have thought women wouldn’t have been a topic kept on the bench.
Winner: Education Both candidates gave airtime and lip service to education, acknowledging how important it was to focus and fund education efforts. Whether it’s helping middle class families afford sending their children to school or acknowledging how important it is in keeping our country competitive economically, education got its props last night.
Loser: Religious Freedom Okay, perhaps this wasn’t such a big loser, but I have to say I was surprised by Romney’s remark that, “We are a nation where we are all children of the same god.” Except, we’re not. This was clearly a line meant to ring true with the most conservative part of the Republican base, but it served to alienate those who feel our premise of religious freedom should honestly reflect the truth that there are different ways to believe.
Winner: The Yankees At least one thing on television last night made me happy.
Loser: Undecided Voters Ultimately, those who lost the biggest were those who are still unclear for whom they’ll cast their votes. If all they had to go on was this first debate, I don’t think that many of them will have come away from last night’s meeting of the candidates any closer to a decision.