Halfway through, they should have stopped the fight.
Gov. Mitt Romney eviscerated a staggering and bewildered President Barack Obama tonight in one of the most lopsided presidential debates in American history. Throughout the debate, which focused on domestic policy, Obama looked shaken, rarely looking at the camera, reciting old talking points and filibustering as Romney gave a master class at the University of Denver.
The debate had been described as a must-win for Romney–and he delivered. Using a rapid-fire style that had not been seen even in the numerous Republican primary debates, he bobbed and weaved through Obama’s attacks and moderator Jim Lehrer’s interjections, launching bullet-point policies that displayed not just a familiarity with the wonkish details but a focus on the travails of ordinary people he had met on the trail.
Again and again, Romney returned to his theme: creating jobs. He did–as expected–take Obama to task for misrepresenting his policies, principally Romney’s tax policy, which Obama referred to, even after being corrected, as a $5 trillion tax cut. But Romney exceeded expectations in focusing on the end result he wished to attain–and which, he said, the president wished to sacrifice: creating jobs for a struggling American workforce.
Obama could not have pleased anyone except those playing drinking games at home, with familiar references to corporate jets (drink!), job training programs (drink!), and tax cuts for shipping jobs overseas (drink!). And for these tired suggestions, most of which appeared in Obama’s talking points in 2008, Romney reminded the president that he had four years in which to enact his policies, to which the president could only nod.
Romney came armed with some memorable one-liners. He called Obama’s economic policy “trickle-down government.” He called the decline in household incomes under the Obama administration the “economy tax.” And–most memorably–he attacked Obama’s green energy subsidies, including Solyndra, Fisker, Tesla, and other failures: “You don’t just pick the winners and losers. You pick the losers.” Obama had nothing in response.
Obama refused–as he has done throughout the campaign–to adopt the stance of the incumbent, and tried to fight as the insurgent challenger, as if his own record were not up for debate. But Romney refused to let him escape–and soon Obama began making several blunders, stating at one point that he had conversations with Americans about their health care “four years ago”–i.e. not since he has taken office. He even turned his frustration upon moderator Jim Lehrer at one point, accusing him of interrupting him.
Lehrer, for his part, was quicker to pounce on Romney with follow-up questions, giving Obama a wider berth. Yet Romney did not let Lehrer divert him from his message or cut off his defenses. He even teased the moderator with his proposal to cut funding from PBS, among other government programs. It was a fearless and clarifying performance.
On health care–which might have been Romney’s weakest issue–Romney argued for the repeal of Obamacare as the best Tea Partier might have done, attacking the board that the law sets up to ration care as a cost control mechanism. The best that Obama could do was remind voters–as if they did not already know–that Romney had passed a health insurance law in Massachusetts. He had to concede one of the best arguments Romney offered–that Obamacare has actually increased the cost of insurance so far.
Romney missed a few–very few–opportunities, taking a long time to defend his tax policy by pointing out that it would be revenue-neutral because it would encourage economic growth. And Obama did put a few points on the board, reminding viewers (twice) of his popular Race to the Top education program, and that he had amassed experience as commander-in-chief with which Romney cannot (yet) compete.
Yet Obama seemed uneasy simply to have a worthy opponent on the other side of the stage. He could not even articulate his oft-repeated philosophy of government in the most basic terms, borrowing from the likes of Barney Frank in describing government as “the things we do together.” Romney gave a straight answer: that the role of government is simply to defend the principles of the Constitution and the founding documents, without replacing the roles of individuals and communities in helping the less fortunate.
Even conservatives who predicted that Romney would do well could not have imagined that he would do this well. It was as complete a victory as any presidential challenger has ever scored–and it exceeded even the hopes of Romney’s most fervent supporters. Obama came across as a politician–a rattled one, grinning and frowning, searching for a way out. Romney came across as a problem-solver, and–amazingly–more in touch with the American people.
There are two more presidential debates, following next Thursday’s debate between the vice presidential candidates. And so Obama will have a chance to redeem himself. But it will be back to the drawing board for Team Obama, while Team Romney will build upon a win they have anticipated for many months and may enjoy for many months hence.