On October 3rd, Mitt Romney gave an epic performance at the first presidential debate in Denver. According to Gallup, Americans, by a 52-point margin--the most ever recorded--said Romney won the debate against Obama. In the aftermath, Romney has taken a steady lead in most national and state polls. There is no need to dissect here the details of the debate or the candidates' performance. More interesting to me is what didn't happen after the debate. There wasn't the usual push-back from the Obama campaign. That is highly unusual.
Since the first campaign in 2008, in the face of any setback, the Obama campaign would quickly deploy a coordinated push-back or distraction to change the subject. The media, whom Glenn Reynolds calls Democrat operatives with bylines, would immediately comply and the campaign would suffer, at most, one or two days of bad press.
Today, we're ten days after the first debate and there has been almost no push-back or changing the subject with a new attack line on Romney. The Obama campaign has allowed over a week of "process" stories in the media; dissections of Obama's performance, expectations for VP debate and Romney's rise in the polls. The only "new" issue that has been raised has been serious questions about the administration's handling of the crisis in Libya.
Oh, sure, there was that bizarre Big Bird ad, but that isn't really an issue upon which presidential elections revolve. Even bringing up the yellow puppet was itself a sign that the Obama campaign couldn't let the debate go. Indeed, Obama kept talking about the debate and making jokes about his performance in it. This is a defensive posture and is uncharacteristic of past Obama campaigns.
Which leads me to wonder; are they out of ideas on which to attack Romney? Have they already exhausted their attack lines on the GOP nominee? Is the sum total of their attack Bain, taxes, tax cuts for the rich and the "47%"? If so, then the Obama campaign is in deep trouble.
Presidents running for reelection have 3 basic strategic options on which to base their campaign. They can:
- Argue that the policies are working and we need to "stay the course" to maintain the clear signs of improvement
- Admit that things haven't completely worked, but present a new plan for a second term to make things right, or
- Disqualify your opponent as unfit or too extreme for the job
It is clear which of these three paths Obama chose. Throughout the summer months, Obama unleashed a massive ad war against Romney, painting him as a "vulture capitalist" who only cares about the rich. They tried to make him into an almost other-worldly figure who could related to average Americans.
They hit him for his tenure at Bain Capital, his tax returns and even hidden video and audio when he talked about the "47%" at fundraiser. The attacks weren't doing anything really to improve Obama's numbers, but they seemed to be keeping Romney from getting traction.
And, then, the debate happened.
The figure onstage at the first debate didn't at all match the caricature painted by the Obama campaign. He was calm and reasonable, moderate in temperament, and had a solid command of the issues and at least an outline of what to do about the challenges we face. In contrast, Obama had, well...nothing we haven't heard for 4 years.
That single 90 minutes in Denver wiped out large chunks of the Obama campaign's foundation. 70 million people tuned in and saw a totally different person than the one portrayed by Obama. Given Obama's legion vulnerabilities, its no wonder that the electorate is starting to move in Romney's direction.
As I said, it is stunning that the Obama campaign has let a week-and-a-half pass without opening up a new line of attack on Romney. My only guess is, they don't have anything else. I think its possible the "47%" attack was originally planned as an October surprise. I think the campaign moved up the attack in the wake of the Libya attacks, to divert attacks from that crisis. The media dutifully complied, but, after the debate, that attack is worn out.
The Obama campaign doesn't quite seem to know what to do, beyond more of the same. Everything seems to be resting on the next debate. Perhaps they have some new attack lined up. Maybe Politico is preparing some bombshell to hit Sunday night, to drive a different narrative for the week. The problem for them, though, is that whatever attack they muster, Romney will have a national platform to answer the charge directly on Tuesday.
The Obama game plan was to knock Romney out early. It didn't happen. If they don't have another play, and I don't think they do, the Obama Administration is soon for the history books.
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