"I Think This Was A Terrific Debate"

Those are the truest words ever uttered by Barack Obama.

I couldn't agree more.

I am late to the punditry game of debate reactions, and there is good reason for that. Last night I decided not to watch the Presidential debate between President Obama and Governor Romney, opting instead to spend a bit of time with a friend I haven't seen in awhile. We spent our evening over an adult beverage, good conversation, and cleaning our pistols. Very manly stuff, you know.

Something funny happened while I was off in the land of gunpowder stains and Scottish single malt. The earth was sucked into a wormhole and there was a rip in the space/time continuum. That is the only explanation I can come up with.

I never thought in a million years the debate would be so utterly dominated by the Republican nominee that no media outlet on planet earth would be able to spin it as an Obama victory. Seriously. When I came home to see the Drudge Report, I could not believe my eyes. Every single news outlet, MSNBC included (MSNBC!) scored the debate as an overwhelming Romney victory. Conservatives were elated; there was wailing and gnashing of teeth on MSNBC. Chris Matthews was incredulous: doesn't Barack Obama watch my program!?  Self-regard is not something Chris Matthews lacks.

Okay. So I thought that maybe some of this was in the eyes of the beholder. Maybe Barack just tried to be too centrist for the MSNBC crowd and that was the source of the consternation. But when I read what Andrew Sullivan (one of Obama's chief water-carriers) wrote, I knew for certain what had happened:

Look: you know how much I love the guy, and you know how much of a high-information viewer I am, and I can see the logic of some of Obama's meandering, weak, professorial arguments. But this was a disaster for the president for the key people he needs to reach, and his effete, wonkish lectures may have jolted a lot of independents into giving Romney a second look.

Obama looked tired, even bored; he kept looking down; he had no crisp statements of passion or argument; he wasn't there. He was entirely defensive, which may have been the strategy. But it was the wrong strategy. At the wrong moment.

The person with authority on that stage was Romney—offered it by one of the lamest moderators ever, and seized with relish. This was Romney the salesman. And my gut tells me he sold a few voters on a change tonight. It's beyond depressing. But it's true.

This was obviously not a good night for Barack Obama.

I have now done my due diligence, and have watched the debate in its entirety. I am now prepared to give my own reactions to what took place on that stage. Many of my reactions may be similar to that of other commentators, but I think I have a few original contributions. As a high-end news and commentary consumer, I was unable to see the debate objectively. But I have tried, as far as I am able, to watch with an open mind, keeping open the possibility that maybe everybody in the pundit crowd is wrong.

They were not wrong.

1.  For starters, Mitt Romney's rhetorical polish and command was simply the best I have ever seen. Hardly a verbal stumble in 90 minutes. He knew exactly what he wanted to say, and he said it with ease. Look: usually Presidential debates are not "debates" in any real sense of the term. They are "soundbyte wars." Each candidate has a ready stock of 30 second soundbytes and they spew them out with regularity, regardless of what the question is. That is a large reason why I opted to not even watch. I cannot tolerate 90 minutes of a candidate shooting through his stock of talking points. Romney's performance was a rarity. Almost unprecedented, in fact. He had talking points, of course. But he wove them into substantive answers absolutely effortlessly. In other words, they did not sound at all like "talking points." They sounded like a man truly answering questions with substance.

By way of contrast, from the very opening moments, President Obama looked and sounded uncomfortable. He was plagued all night with awkward pauses. You could almost see his brain crunching, searching in vain for the right soundbyte for the moment. I am not imagining the difference between the two men. Everybody saw it, and everyone agrees: Mitt Romney was in command and Barack Obama was completely floundering.

2. If you had predicted to me beforehand that the Republican would be the candidate to exude warmth and empathy, I would have told you that you are crazy. Democrats have had an invincible monopoly on "caring" and "feeling your pain." As of last night, those days are over. Mitt Romney spoke of the poor, the jobless, and the less fortunate with amazing pathos, without seeming insincere in the slightest. He turned questions around to it again and again, dropping well-timed anecdotes about the plight of the lower and middle classes under the Obama administration.

By way of contrast, when on the rare occasions Obama even talked about the "middle class," about whom he is supposed to care so much, he was all abstractions, cold and clinical. Nobody watched that debate and came away with the conclusion: "Barack Obama really cares about me!" Romney greatly helped himself because I can easily conceive of somebody saying: "I think that guy really cares that I am unemployed!"

3. The first two were stylistic points. Substantively, from his very first statement Romney trotted out a "five-point plan" and explained each in simple, common sense terms. He seems to love lists, and he offered many of them with just the right amount of detail. His defense of the private sector as the engine of economic growth was terrific throughout the night, and completely unassailable by his opponent. One moment came late in the debate that struck me. The question was on the role of government, and President Obama was first. He gave a completely abstract, stumbling monologue on how the federal government can "help" provide the infrastructure for success and other bromides about "doing things together" (as if that is responsive).

Romney started his answer by quoting the Declaration of Independence, and, from where I was sitting, it was a truly powerful moment. As a viewer, the reality suddenly struck me: "Oh yeah! Doesn't our founding say something about this subject?" Barack Obama could have given his answer to any audience; in fact, I could easily see him giving that little mini-lecture in the halls of the European parliament. Mitt Romney suddenly looked like an American man equipped to be an American leader. (No, that is not a "birther" code or comment about race.) When scratched, Obama bled big-government, Euro-socialism; Mitt Romney bled American. I thought the difference was striking, and it will strike the voters. 

4. I was struck throughout the debate at just how dry the well is for Obama. He had absolutely nothing to draw on to help him. He has no imagination left. No soaring ideas or rhetoric. Just a really bad record. No matter what the question was, all he could say is that Mitt Romney "will increase the deficit" with his tax cuts. This is simply unbelievable. Mr. Six-Trillion-Dollar-Man suddenly became last night the great defender of fiscal responsibility. It struck me, and will strike a vast majority of American voters, as a complete and utter joke.

Mitt Romney may have won himself the presidency last night (let's not get ahead of ourselves), but I happen to believe he could have decisively won it with one simple sentence:

"I believe that's the first time I've ever heard President Obama worried about 'paying for' something."

If he would say that sentence in front of 40 million Americans, the election would be over. Because the only line of attack Obama has left, and the only one he used last night (again, the well is dry) is that he is concerned about tax cuts being "paid for" and the deficit being reduced. This one sentence would deflate that absurdity because every American instinctively knows that Barack Obama doesn't care, has never cared, and never will care about "paying for" anything.

5. I never thought I'd live to see the day when the Republican cannot be accused of wanting to kill Granny. A sign of the times? Romney said these words: "Let's go back to Medicare, can we?"

6. Late in the debate the contrast between the two men was even more pronounced:

Mitt Romney spoke like this: "And that's what I did as Governor."

Barack Obama spoke like this: "And that's what I've tried to do as President."

Maybe people didn't notice that, but moods and tenses have a subconscious impact. Romney came across as a man with a plan, a man of action. Obama came across as impotent and whining. When his closing statement began with his instinctive "Blame Bush" mentality, "Four years ago when I walked into the Oval Office," it was pathetic enough for me to have a shred of sympathy for the man. He looked utterly defeated. His entire case for reelection has come down to this: "Give me a mulligan for the last four years."

The American people are not going to give him a mulligan. One commentator had it right: there was exactly one person on that stage who looked like a President. And that person was Mitt Romney. Another opined that if Martians had landed to watch the debate, they would never have guessed that Barack Obama was the incumbent President. I think that is exactly right.

7. My impression is that no incumbent President has ever been thrashed so thoroughly as Barack Obama was last night. Yes, some say that this has happened before. Maybe Mondale outshined Reagan in their first debate. But last night was not about "outshining" or scoring a few more points here or there. Last night was complete decimation. And it was not because Obama was unprepared. It was because his idea well is dry; it has been weighed and found wanting. He was simply no match for Romney.

Others have observed this already, but I want to reiterate it. The truth is that Barack Obama has never had to debate anybody serious. He got rid of his competitors in his Illinois races by the dirtiest of politics: unsealing ugly divorce records. Running for U.S. Senate, he had a buffoon of an opponent by the name of Alan Keyes. (Sorry, Alan: I might agree with you about a lot of things, but a serious politician you are not.) Running for President he faced off with John McCain. Like I said: he's never had a serious opponent.

Add to this that he lives in a hermetically sealed bubble where everybody thinks he's the greatest (seriously, he only reads the New York Times!), and we can now pinpoint why he was so unprepared. He has never had to prepare. He phoned it in, and he looked like a fool. I highly doubt that he will be able to brush up enough to hold his own against Romney two more times.

Pride comes before the fall. We've seen the unprecedented levels of pride ("I'm Lebron, baby! I've got game!").

Last night we saw the beginnings of the fall. It will be complete on November 6th.

Brian Mattson