On the issues as presented, Mitt Romney was the winner of the debate by a fairly wide margin. However, it is not at all clear that he achieved the kind of personal appeal that so many observers thought was a central goal of the event for him.
Romney was on the attack from the minute the debate started — and he was well prepared. On issue after issue, he went after President Obama with details and examples to support his claim that the president had failed to follow through on promises to bring the country out of recession.
That was to be expected. Romney is smart and experienced and, realizing its importance, he’d been preparing for this debate for a long time.
What was not expected was the president’s failure to punch back with any force or authority. Obama is widely regarded as a great speaker — and he has proven to be so on numerous occasions. But debating requires a different set of skills — and the president either doesn’t have them or chose not to use them. In contrast to Romney’s rapid-fire, tightly structured attacks, Obama was generally tongue-tied, often groping for the right words and often not quite finding them.
Romney never abandoned the offensive, while the president made only a few, somewhat feeble references to well known weaknesses in Romney’s policy positions.
In short, it was boxer and punching bag for most of the night.
The two men’s body language only reinforced the impression that Romney was steamrolling the president.
Romney delivered his criticisms directly to the president, head up and eyes straight ahead. He also spent a lot of time addressing the camera — which, given the way television works, means addressing the millions of viewers who had tuned in to watch.
Obama, in contrast, spent an inordinate amount of time talking to moderator Jim Lehrer — probably the least important member of that audience of millions. On the occasions where Obama spoke directly to the camera, he was effective, but there was far too little of that.
Worst of all, though, the president often did not raise his head to look squarely at Romney during the times when he addressed him directly. He seemed to be avoiding confrontation — appearing deferential and even a bit intimidated.
If you had turned off the sound and just watched the picture, you would have bet that Romney was the president and Obama the challenger. You can bet neither Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton would have allowed themselves to shrink in that way.
So, on the one hand, many of Romney’s statements about Obama’s failures, or the virtues of his own plans, went unchallenged in any effective way. At the same time, the president seemed to be physically retreating from the barrage of arguments pouring from the other podium.
As for closing statements, Obama’s was rambling and lacked a central message. Romney’s was forceful and neatly packaged all his key positions.
That adds up to a solid win for Romney.
Now for the other side of the coin — and there is always another side.
Though easily the dominant debater, Romney was far from completely appealing. He was in energy overdrive the entire night – almost manic at times — speaking so rapidly and intensely that I half expected him to burst into flames. After an hour or so, Romney was simply wearing me out. I was exhausted. There was something unpleasantly machine-like in the presentation — which, of course, plays into a stereotype that Romney has been struggling to overcome. He was mouthing the right words, stressing his compassion for the poor and downtrodden — but the words were not in synch with the affect.
If, as many people have suggested, Romney needed to make people like him more than he needed to score argumentation points, then he may well have won the battle and lost the war. We’ll see plenty of polls in the next few days to suggest which way that falls.
Obama may have been hindered by his own concern about stereotypes. From the beginning of his rise to the presidency, Obama has been wary of coming across as the “angry black man.” Just this week, Fox News’ Sean Hannity and other right-wing media agitators were trumpeting “discovery” of a video from 2007 of Obama speaking at a black college that purportedly shows him engaging in a radical, racial politics that they claim he deliberately hides from the general public. It was a stupid ploy — the video had been extensively discussed in the media in 2008. Nonetheless, it may have touched a nerve in the Obama campaign and caused them to advise the president to avoid appearing overly aggressive in the debate. But there is a big difference between careful coolness and complete passivity.
At the same time, the president was an appealing figure. Passivity can be read as humility. The president went through a natural range of emotional expressions. He came across as what we know him to be — a thoughtful, reasonable, compassionate guy. Still, being a nice guy doesn’t mean you have to roll over and surrender. That’s something the Obama camp must fix before the next debate.
I have no doubt that most people will say that Romney won the debate. And that is true in many ways.
But it doesn’t mean he won the hearts of voters who have concerns about his core values and intentions.
Rich Lewis’ email address is email@example.com.