No question Obama lost the first debate. It was not even close. But as pundits and the public debate the performance one has to ask, did it really matter that Obama blew it?
Think first about had the debate gone the other way. Romney is behind in the polls nationally and in the swing states and lagging in fund-raising. He was coming off a couple of very bad weeks. Had Obama won a decisive victory this might have ended Romney’s presidential campaign. A bad performance would have shifted donors from his campaign to congressional races, making it all but impossible for Romney to remain competitive. Obama had a chance to deliver a technical knock out. But he failed. In part Obama’s failure is the failure of his presidency–a failure to provide a narrative or rationale for another four years. As I have repeatedly contended, since 2010 the Democrats have failed to provide a narrative and Obama has yet to explain why he deserves four more years. Romney provided a vision for the future, Obama did not. His closing statement was terrible.
Romney did not achieve a knockout either in terms of dooming Obama’s campaign. But whether this was the proverbial “game-changer” that experts talk of is a matter of dispute. Romney would not be the first challenger to win the first debate but still lose. In 1984 Mondale decisively beat Reagan and the latter came back for a second debate and won, and trounced him in November. Kerry too beats Bush in 2004 only to lose the election. First debates often go to challengers. Simply by virtue of standing next to the president challengers often win. But Romney did more than that.
This was the debate that should have been Mitt’s best–on the economy. He could shine by criticizing the president’s handling of the economy and sin with his experience as a business person and head of Bain capital. Obama could have wounded him with the criticisms of exporting job’s oversea or outsourcing while at Bain or with the 47% speech, but Obama let him off easy, thus giving Romney the best forum on the best topic for him to debate the president. The next debate will be on foreign policy, a weaker area for Romney, and Obama should be more in the game for it. He needs to look like he wants to be at the debate, not somewhere else. On Wednesday I saw shades of 1992 when George Bush looked at his watch during the presidential debate, acting as if he had a better place to be that talking to the public.
My point is that presidents off blow a first debate and recover. So can Obama. There are two other presidential debates and a vice-presidential debate to come. There is also one more month. At least Obama got some reprieve on Friday with an unemployment rate falling to 7.8%–the number looks better even if the job production is still bad. Obama’s approval rating is over 50% according to CNN and his poll numbers in swing states still look good. Early voting is already taking place and there are few undecided voters. All this suggests Romney’s good performance may be muted unless the performance was so good it forces some already decided voters to change their mind. I am cautious about instant polls on the debate and look to see what the polls say on Saturday or Sunday was the tweets and pundits are done.
What Romney got Wednesday was a new lease on life. Obama could have ended the campaign effectively but failed to do so, giving Romney a new chance to do something. Both candidates need to decide what to do with the opportunity but still it looks like the race is Obama’s to lose.
Finally, it was debate that could have been had either candidate really offered ideas that would work or which had realistic math and numbers attached to them. I saw it as a debate with two contending economic philosophies: One that failed and one that is failing. Neither Romney not Obama or the Republicans or Democrats in general seem to be offering realistic theories about taxes, investing in the future, energy, or a host of other issues. So much of the debate the other night was about what was not discussed and needed to be.
Side Note: Today I head to Kiev, Ukraine and Malta until October 20. I will be teaching and giving lectures as an independent scholar for the US State Department. I will do mu best to blog while away.