There had been some conventional wisdom I'd held onto about the 2012 debates from the moment that Mitt Romney selected Paul Ryan as his running mate: Don't let Joe Biden get cocky. Say what you will about his policies (& there's a lot to be said), but as a public speaker Paul Ryan can be very effective — neat, concise, & persuasive. Even when he's telling flat-out lies. (Or perhaps, especially when he's telling flat-out lies.) It was easy to picture a scenario where Biden — who was elected as a senator when Paul Ryan was in diapers, literally — thought he had it in the bag, under-prepped & underwhelmed in some mix of hyperbole & impulsiveness, while Ryan, cool, coherent, & collected, proved his worth as the GOP's "idea man." & for sure, such a scenario could still happen.
But after watching the debates last night, it struck me that maybe my "conventional wisdom" was misdirected — maybe it was President Obama who needed to be sure not to get cocky.
It seemed to explain Obama's all but universally-panned performance last night, seeming meek, listless, & unfocused, while Mitt Romney more than held his own, heightened by a very strong start & a solid close. In the middle, he seemed (to me, anyway) to get a bit rude & fiery, & the fact-checkers are all earning overtime deconstructing what he said. But in the greater modern political narrative, how things are said is often more important than what things are said. Just ask LBJ who, after listening to the televised Kennedy-Nixon debates over the radio, declared Nixon the winner.
Political analyst (& former Reagan & Clinton advisor) David Gergen wrote earlier this week that in order to — let's just say it — save his campaign, Romney could not merely hold his own against the president, Romney had to decisively out-debate him. & indeed, moments after the debates ended, an astonished Gergen proclaimed that, against all odds, this is exactly what Romney did. Somehow, it was Romney who came off as more poised, confident, & clear; it was Romney who better connected things to "average people" & the rest. In other words, it was Romney who did all the things that President Obama is usually masterful at.
& that doesn't even begin to hint at the litany of things that Obama could've (& should've) hit Romney with, from his tenure at Bain (which Obama successfully defused just as Bush had done with Kerry's war record) to his term as governor (during which Massachusetts was 47th out of job growth, & only then because Hurricane Katrina caused Louisiana to bump it up from 48th) to Romney's numerous gaffes such as when he attacked the president's handing of the recent Middle East crisis before he had all of the information at hand.
& then, of course, there's the biggie, which came from Romney's OWN MOUTH: Namely, that Romney doesn't need to worry about the 47% of Americans who are dependent victims living off of the government. As moderator Jim Lerher asked again & again for differences in their philosophies, Obama didn't mention that, um, he cared about 100% of the Americans, not 47% of them.
So, the question becomes, WHAT THE F___ HAPPENED? I've read everything from Obama simply choked to that he was strategically actually laying low & keeping calm to size up his competition in preparation for pouncing in the next debate. (Um, OK.) But it was CNN's analyst (& magical map master) John King's theory that resonates the truest with me: It seemed that, with his lead in the past few weeks (make that months), Obama went into the debate trying to keep "above the fray" such that he didn't want to lower himself to get in the muck of what could be considered partisan mudslinging — the Bain tenure, the Middle East criticism, the 47%, etc.
That's all well & good in theory, but do you know who else tried to stay "above the fray"? John Kerry, who refused to bite back at the Republican "swiftboat" campaign, & look at the results: Bush got became a 2-term president, Kerry became a historical footnote, & swiftboating became a verb.
Is it merely a coincidence, then, that the person who most helped Obama prep for last night's debate was none other than...JOHN KERRY???
All of which is to say, nothing irrevocable has really happened. It's worthy to note that both Reagan & Bush decisively lost their first midterm campaign debate, although Reagan had the "excuse-in-retrospect" of showing early signs of Alzheimer's disease while Bush was not yet given an earpiece to help guide his answers.
But Obama? It is perhaps, as one of my favorite journalists, Time Magazine's Joe Klein (who is rarely critical of major Democrats) called it, one of the most inept performances he's ever seen of a sitting president.
Maybe so, but I still remain optimistic as for what's to come. If anyone can hunker down & study up to present themselves strongly, it's Barack Obama. Hopefully this first debate served as a wake-up call that the state of the union is still too fragile & Mitt Romney is far too capable for Obama to think he can just take the debates on an easy walk.
If I know President Obama, he will only go up from here, especially when you consider that one of the debates ahead focuses on foreign policy, his ace card in the eyes of voters.
Maybe in the meantime, my conventional wisdom will turn itself on its head & it will be Joe Biden who has to remind Barack Obama not to get too cocky.