Only one man came out of the first presidential debate in Denver looking good. It wasn’t Barack Obama — nor was it PBS’s Jim Lehrer, who “moderated” the event so absently he seemed to be watching an episode of Masterpiece Theater on an iPad under his desk.
Yes, Mitt Romney was sure firing on all cylinders last night. Armed with well-rehearsed zingers and carefully memorized arguments — who knew every political topic could be distilled into three or four cogent bullet points? — the former Massachusetts governor might as well have been giving a Powerpoint presentation to awed investors in Bain’s corporate boardroom.
Foreign journalists have long been enamored of the liberal, multiracial Obama — must be all that apologizing, right? But even they couldn’t look past a performance from the president that was strangely passionless, wonky and without vision.
Obama gets an F
“Professorial” is the media’s word of choice for Obama. But academics are supposed to know how to construct a counterargument against criticisms of their ideas.
No, “listless” sounds like a much better word for Obama’s showing last night, according to Gregor Peter Schmitz of Gernmany’s Spiegel Online. He writes that the president seemed sullen in Denver and kept staring at the floor, his face marred by an unpleasant grimace. All of that played into his challengers hands:
“Romney . . . has always had the economic data on his side, but never the popularity numbers. In recent weeks, he has even threatened to morph into the caricature of the candidate for the 1 percent of the wealthiest Americans. The Republican became one of the rare campaigners whose polling data deteriorated in states even after he had visited them to give stump speeches.
But on Wednesday, televised to the masses, Romney appeared like a human being for the first time — a man who knows why he wants to get voted into the White House. That may not sound like a whole lot, but it could prove tremendously valuable for the Republicans.”
In Canada, Adam Radwanski of the The Globe and Mail took a Romney-esque approach to critiquing Obama. You guessed it: bullet points! The president, he writes, simply “failed to tell the story of what he wants to do in the next four years, and why it’s better than what Republican nominee Mitt Romney would do.”
Among Radwanski’s central criticisms: Obama proved incapable of demonstrating how his legislative achievements would affect American voters. Instead, he rambled on, making his points with abstractions and obscure-sounding statistics. In fairness, this was encouraged by Lehrer of PBS.
But when has anyone ever listened to a debate moderator anyway?
Furthermore, Radwanski argues, Obama was ineloquent — and he left some of his best zingers on the table. Why didn’t the president mention Romney’s secretly recorded jab at the 47 percent? Or his statement: “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt”? Or the fact that the former CEO likely pays lower taxes than his secretaries?
It’s all well and good being “presidential,” but not if it costs you another four years of being president. And don’t let the nostalgists fool you: politics has never been a gentleman’s game.
The more you know
While Romney dominated the debate, some of his arguments weren’t necessarily fair or even factual.
Narayan Lakshman, an enterprising reporter for the The Hindu who attended the debate, managed to track down a pair of Indian students outside the hall at the University of Denver.
One of them, a 20-year old named Onkar Singh, said he thinks Romney is all bun, no beef. “While Mr. Romney has said all the things we’d want to hear,” Singh argues, “he hasn’t shown how he’d do it, for example how he’d create 12 million new jobs.”
Whatever you think of Romney and Obama, most people would probably agree that the real loser was Lehrer, the moderator, and his toothless questions. Writing in South Africa’s Daily Maverick, J. Brooks Spector, a former American diplomat, makes the case that PBS didn’t exactly recreate Lincoln-Douglas:
This event, more appropriately termed a live studio encounter, was not really a debate at all. The format ostensibly called for the moderator to ask questions and have the candidates respond on each point at issue for two minutes apiece, followed by further responses. But Lehrer quickly ceded control over the tempo of the event to the candidates. Commentary on this meeting may well begin to argue for a return to an old-style debate where candidates get enough time to build a case for their respective candidacy and big enough chunks of time to attack their opponent’s case in depth.
Even so, unless Obama stinks up the next two debates as well, his lead in crucial swing states like Ohio and Florida is looking solid.
Romney will need to keep practicing those zingers. A few of them — “You’re entitled to your own airplane and your own house, but not your own facts” — sounded a bit forced.
But the challenger was probably responsible for the evening’s funniest moment, when in the debate’s opening moments he congratulated the president on entering his twentieth year of marriage, quipping: “I’m sure this was the most romantic place you could imagine, here with me!”