Last night’s presidential debate, the most tweeted event in US history and seen by 67 million Americans, was like watching televised lawn bowls: a non event. Republican contender Mitt Romney wildly gesticulated and avoided talking about anything remotely resembling policy. President Barack Obama played hookie and stayed home in bed.
Some commentators have suggested that Obama’s performance was a cool, calm, intentionally staged show of presidential podium prowess. A dignified, considered response to avoid appearing as an eager terrier nipping at the opposition’s heels.
But Romney adopted the role of convivial prosecutor, glancing sideways across at Obama, smiling and blinking asininely while the president pored over his sparknotes. The debate was quickly transformed into a referendum on Obama’s leadership rather than a discourse.
And as Romney enthusiastically shadow-danced, Obama hung up his gloves.
Led by the doddery sounding PBS anchor Jim Lehrer the debate focused mainly on the economy, winding its way through jobs, medicare, Obamacare, education and the role of government. Snooze.
The presidential debate — the first of three in the lead up to the 6 November election — was all about the detail, largely rebutting the idea that these occasions are all fluff and mumble.
But the content overwrote the performance, especially for Obama. Clouded by wonk-speak, both sides missed the key campaign fighting points like women’s rights, abortion and Bain Capital. There were so many missed opportunities, so few Zingers, and so little pizazz. There was no mention of Romney’s 47 per cent gaffe and 45 minutes had passed before the Ryan Budget was even mentioned.
Where was Obama? He seemed comatose, unable to respond to Romney’s jibes. When Romney compared Obama to his sons, saying, "Look I’ve got five boys and I’m used to someone saying something that’s not true and keep repeating it," the audience murmured, and Obama could only manage a smile and a long blink.
When Romney announced he’d cut PBS subsidies and Big Bird would be getting a swift retrenchment notice if he took office, Obama laughed. When he back flipped on his $5 trillion tax cut promise, Obama didn’t call him on it.
And when Romney spat, "Mr President, you’re entitled to your own airplane and your own house, but not to your own facts," couldn’t Obama have brought up Romney’s overseas bank accounts and his car elevators? Or Romney’s states’ rights anti-civil liberties code-speak? Nope. He spent more time explaining than convincing, or addressing — and any high school debater knows, that’s death.
To be fair though, the POTUS did have a couple of moments, once alluding to Romney’s lack of policy detail and pointing out his inability to reign in vocal Republican extremes. But what he gave in substance he lost in delivery; his lines were buried in statistics and 119 word sentences.
Obama can also take some solace in the past. Others before him have lost debates with little consequence for the race. George W Bush buckled under John Kerry in the first debate of 2004, and we know how that turned out. The other point is it’s still a debate, not theatre and voters for the most part still judge candidates on policy and what makes sense.
It will be four days until the first round of formal polling comes through and can give an indication of who really won and who lost and on what points.
But initial polls awarded Romney a healthy victory; CNN’s poll put the figures at 67-25. Overall opinion poll figures are looking up for the Republicans too. Romney is polling 51 per cent, the first time he’s enjoyed a net positive, and the first big boost since Paul Ryan was nominated for the VP’s job back in August. Elected officials and party hopefuls alike can take some reassurance that they’re still in the fight, but the 270 electoral college votes Romney needs to make office are going to be hard to land.
In the meantime, and just in case, do yourself a favor and tell Big Bird you love him. He might not be around forever, in spite of Romney’s gift of almost 29,000 followers on Twitter.
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