Obama got clobbered. Mitt Romney needed to win yesterday’s presidential debate and he did so, decisively. The Republican candidate spent the last week in debate prep—and it showed. He looked in command, reasonable, forthright. Obama looked tired. This should have been his chance to put the race beyond Romney’s reach and he blew it. Before the debate, the president led in almost all the swing states. Romney’s inept campaigning and his disparaging remarks about the 47 per cent of Americans he deems moochers had solidified his reputation as an out-of-touch multimillionaire who only cares for the rich. But Obama never attacked. Instead he had all the fire of a mid-level bureaucrat defending the status quo.
Of course, Romney profited from his imperviousness to fact checkers. On Medicare, he simultaneously attacked the president for his profligacy and then pledged to restore $716bn in benefits. When Obama noted that Romney’s proposed tax cuts for the wealthy would either increase the deficit or raise taxes on the middle class, Romney merely repeated that it would not. Obama seemed constrained by reality, Romney blithely able to assert that tax cuts would pay for themselves through growth. Most shockingly, he called the president overly partisan, ignoring the past four years of Republican obstructionism.
Still, the debates aren’t really about facts. They are a way for the electorate to take the measure of the man, to see if it can view the candidate as “presidential.” By that measure, Romney succeeded magnificently. He didn’t look frightening at all. By focusing on jobs for the middle class, and promising to help create them, he repudiated the accusation that he doesn’t care for average Americans. His sunny optimism contrasted with Obama’s dour professorial seriousness.
Will it make a difference? It is hard to imagine that after two years of interminable campaigning any voters are still undecided, and even harder to imagine they were tuned in to this debate. It will take a few days before the polls tell us the debate’s impact, but in all likelihood the race has just gotten closer. Unfortunately, it looks like we are going to have to keep paying attention to the American election, and even to wonder what a Romney presidency might look like.