If you knew nothing about Barack Obama and Mitt Romney except what you saw in their final debate, you would have assumed that Romney was the incumbent president, that Obama was the challenger trying to unseat him, that Romney was clearly leading in the polls going in and that he remained there going out. You wouldn’t necessarily think Romney won the debate, but you would think he was winning the race.
It was absolutely clear that both candidates understood that this debate was entirely about Mitt Romney. Romney’s only goal was to seem presidential, and Obama’s only goal was to make Romney seem not presidential. By that measure, Romney clearly achieved his aim and Obama clearly did not. Romney did this by treating this debate very differently than the other two. He didn’t really try to score points, and he wasn’t afraid to express agreement with Obama, which he did remarkably often. His goal was to answer every question with a calm, responsible attitude and convey sobriety and level-headedness. The calculation must have been pretty simple: voters are not greatly concerned with foreign policy this year, but they wouldn’t elect someone they don’t trust on foreign policy. So having clearly conveyed his differences with Obama on domestic issues and his own domestic agenda, Romney merely needed to be a plausible commander in chief—to convey deep knowledge and the right attitude, to avoid getting rattled, to deny Obama the chance to label him a war monger or an amateur, and to waive off attacks on himself by returning to his core domestic message and reminding voters that the president is running on nothing.
Obama helped Romney a little more than he had to. He reinforced his own lack of agenda by the way he described why he should remain in office. It is downright peculiar for the sitting president to say again and again that we need nation-building at home after years of neglect. It is downright peculiar for anyone running in this economy to keep coming back to the need to build roads and bridges. And his little (clearly unintentional) “The nation, me” line (which sounded better in the original French) will be a fixture of conservative Obama critiques from now on.
Obama also made a couple of pretty stunning missteps. He seems to actually believe his campaign’s line about Romney and the auto bailout, for instance. The fact that the New York Times titled Romney’s now famous op-ed (written before Obama became president, by the way) “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” doesn’t mean Romney said the auto industry should be liquidated, or even denied federal assistance. He didn’t. He called for a managed bankruptcy followed by federal guarantees and support, which is basically what Obama ended up doing but without Obama’s lawless fleecing of creditors and giveaways to the unions. And more voters will now learn that than otherwise would have.
Even more astonishing, to me, was Obama’s ignorant and gratuitous insult to the U.S. Navy, describing Navy ships as the equivalent of horses and bayonets. It seemed like a prepared line, and it was appalling. Are the hundreds of thousands of sailors bearing arms under our flag (on the president’s orders) defending America’s security around the world tonight merely riders in some quixotic cavalry brigade chasing make-believe Indian chiefs? How exactly does a “pivot to Asia” work without those old fashioned ships? How does a global superpower project force abroad with fewer ships than it had when it wasn’t a global superpower? How does the advent of aircraft carriers make the Navy less rather than more significant? Is the sitting president really this confused about defense strategy? That line seems like a Romney ad in Virginia just waiting to happen.
None of this, however, is to say that Romney clearly won the debate. He didn’t land many punches against Obama’s foreign policy, surely in part because he didn’t really attempt all that many, and he certainly didn’t embarrass Obama. Anyone whose expectations were built by the first debate would have to say that Obama was far stronger in this one, and I think anyone scoring by points would probably say this was a tie and if pressed to declare a winner could easily choose Obama.
But this debate won’t be scored by points in the end, just as the first two debates weren’t. Romney got a far stronger wind in his sails from the first debate than his actual performance point by point should have earned him, and he got that because the debate changed people’s basic perception of him. He didn’t seem at all like the caricature Obama had spent months and millions painting. He seemed like the kind of person we choose for the presidency. He did the same in the second debate, without winning that one on points, and seems to have sustained his momentum as a result. And I think he did the same again in the final debate.
Long ago, the Obama campaign decided that in order for the president to win re-election in a bad economy when people weren’t happy with his performance he would have to do all he could to make this election about whether Romney was electable and presidential, and to pound a negative answer into people’s heads. This is the ground they chose to fight on, and the three presidential debates have therefore added up to a disaster for them. The first debate was the most painful for the president, because it not only put an impressive and presidential Romney on display but also put before the country a very unappealing version of Barack Obama. In tonight’s debate, as in last week’s, they had only the appealing Romney to worry about—but that is bad enough for them. Romney has easily passed the bar of presidential plausibility on both domestic and foreign policy, he has forcefully argued to voters that he has a real agenda for fixing our economic problems and the president doesn’t, and he has reminded them of why they are unhappy about the last four years. It has been an extraordinary accomplishment, achieved by Romney himself, and just when it counted. The Obama campaign has struggled fecklessly for a response, and has tended to turn to immature gimmicks—from Big Bird to binders of women—while leaving Romney’s core message untouched.
This doesn’t mean Mitt Romney will win the election, but it does make it much more likely that he will. After the past month, no one can argue that debates don’t matter.