Massacre leaves liberals in tears
By JOHN PODHORETZ
Last Updated: 4:10 AM, October 4, 2012
Posted: 2:27 AM, October 4, 2012
Slaughter. It was a slaughter.
Mitt Romney put on the most commanding presidential debate performance of the insta-commentary era. One could literally watch, on Facebook and Twitter, hundreds of people on both sides of the political divide react in real time as the debate went on.
Their reactions were identical, though their moods were not: As Romney dominated exchange after exchange with a surprisingly effective combination of pointed personal touches and remarkable factual preparation, conservatives and Republicans grew more and more jubilant while liberals and Democrats grew more and more alarmed.
The conservative response could be boiled down to: “Who is this guy? Where have they been hiding him?”
Meanwhile, the president was so off his game that he failed even to create an “aww” moment at the very start, when he noted that last night was his 20th wedding anniversary.
And he went downhill from there.
He chose to turn the very first topic, creating jobsin a slowing economy, into a disquisition on the need for a better education system. And with the exception of an effective hit at Romney on Medicare funding more than an hour in, he rambled, was unclear and seemed at times to lose his own point.
At the end of the debate, the highly excitable pseudo-conservative-turned-hot-leftist Obama fancier Andrew Sullivan spoke for many on his side when he was reduced to heartbroken profanity on Twitter: “How is Obama’s closing so f--king sad, confused, lame? He choked. He lost. He may even have lost election tonight.”
Forget the substance, even though this was a pretty substantive debate with wonky disputes on the mechanics of financial regulation and the restructuring of health-care payments. Presidential debates are about the impressions they create in the minds of viewers and listeners and the big moments they sometimes feature.
There was no big moment, and that was by design. Indeed, the Romney campaign apparently engaged in a bit of amusing misdirection when someone told The New York Times that Mitt was preparing “zingers.” That may have led the Obama people to think Romney would be aiming low and that they should rise above his cheap tactics.
Instead, Romney finally showed the quality for which the people who worked with and for him in business have long praised him: his astonishing command of detail. There were glimmers of it in the 20 debates in which he participated with his Republican rivals in 2011 and early 2012, but nothing like his stunt last night.
He not only had 10,000 factoids, numbers, details and bits and pieces of policy in his head, he was able to summon them up, recombine them, improvise with them and take advantage of that knowledge in relentlessly rebutting every jab the president threw at him.
Obama seemed entirely unprepared for the Romney onslaught, and retreated into comforting soundbites from ineffective past speeches — about how his grandmother needed Medicare, and how Abraham Lincoln liked to build infrastructure just like Obama does.
Now, other incumbent presidents have had this kind of trouble before in the first debates of their re-election campaigns. Ronald Reagan in 1984 was so bumbling and lost, people began to wonder if he had lost it. In 2004, John Kerry mopped the floor with George W. Bush.
This is clearly one of the problems of living inside the White House bubble. No one argues with presidents or forces them to defend their positions, and their disputation muscles begin to atrophy.
Their challengers, by contrast, are hardened and sharpened by the realities of running for office — having just been through debate after debate after debate, rally after rally after rally, and the need for press attention rather than the avoidance of it.
In other words, Romney demonstrated last night that the ridiculous Republican primary season actually did him a world of good.
And he did himself a universe of good. In the first flash poll, done by CBS, he was not only judged the winner by a margin of 56-32, but even more striking, the number of those who said they thought Romney cared about them doubled, from 30 percent to 60 percent.
But as the examples of Mondale and Kerry demonstrate, one good debate performance does not an incumbent slayer make. There’s more to do and more to come.