It would be bracing and newsworthy to be able to make the case that the Republican campaign had staged a Fabian retreat to strength, deliberately inducing Democratic overconfidence, and then ambushed them in their complacency, like Tolstoy’s mythologized Kutuzov enticing Napoleon into the vastness and winter of Russia. There is nothing to imply such tactical genius on the part of the Romney campaign; but it did — like the French commander in 1914, Marshal Joffre — conduct an orderly retreat, until the opponent thought recovery impossible; and then, like Joffre on the Marne a few miles east of Paris, stood and repulsed the invader.
Obama’s performance, despite the yelps of disaffection of Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow that their commander had personally failed them, was perfectly adequate. He uttered no clangorous gaffes, like Gerald Ford’s comment in the 1976 debate that the Poles did not think themselves dominated by the Russians, and did not appear unwell, like Richard Nixon in the first debate in 1960 (which radio listeners concluded that he had won). He was fluent and calm and not at all abrasive. But he had to cope with the serious problem that he has a terrible record, probably the poorest since James Buchanan, and this was not the place for him to lay into Romney, as he and his campaign have in other venues, as a callous centimillionaire, contemptuous of the average person, whose candidacy was bought with the ill-gotten fruits of asset-stripping and outsourcing, and who is tainted by religious obscurantism and the quaintness of cultic eccentricity (this from someone who sat comfortably in the front pews of Jeremiah Wright’s racist church for 20 years before changing his pitch to the world’s Islamists).
Mitt Romney played it almost perfectly; he completely debunked the portrayal of himself as detached, uncaring, stupid, plastic, and extreme. He was attentive, polite, firm but respectful, alert, at least as articulate as the president (in this regard, a welcome upgrade from the Bushes, John McCain, and even Bob Dole, who was witty but tongue-tied in debate with President Clinton). His appearance, so often seeming to be bucking for the John Edwards Prize for perfect grooming and managed hair and skin color, was natural and vigorous. He was good-humored, quick, and knowledgeable, as those who know him claim he truly is, and his family, at the end of the debate, was very attractive. The impression of a substantive and reasonable difference with the incumbent was reinforced by his speech to the Virginia Military Institute several days later.
The result of the debate was to make the race an apparent toss-up. The Gallup tracking poll shows a two-point lead for Romney. All the costly and verbose Democratic investment in Seamus (the Romneys’ auto-rooftop dog), the malapropisms, and the fatuous miscues has gone over the side with the false claims that Romney is an extremist. It is like the point in the British abdication crisis of 1936 when the self-important Cosmo Lang — archbishop of Canterbury and thus leader of the established church — said of King Edward VIII’s brother and his wife (about to become King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, for 50 years the Queen Mother): “The Yorks can do it.”
So can Romney.
With four weeks to go, the instinct of the Chicago boiler-room pols who run the regime politically will be to torque up the assault on Romney, since they can’t rebut his attacks on the Obama record. Defaming the challenger won’t fly and never has. All you can do is engage in the hauteur of disdain, if you happen to be a well-situated incumbent. Roosevelt disparaged “Martin, Barton, and Fish” and reduced Thomas E. Dewey to running against the president’s dog, Fala (a Scottie whose “Scots soul was furious”); and Eisenhower dismissed Adlai Stevenson’s advice on defense as nonsense (which it was) from the promontory of a completely successful theater commander in history’s greatest war, who had received the unconditional surrender of our enemies. Romney hasn’t left a lot hanging out on personality, as Dewey did against President Truman; or on policy, as Barry Goldwater did against Lyndon Johnson (on welfare, civil rights, and foreign war), as George McGovern did against Richard Nixon (on every area of foreign and domestic policy), and as Walter Mondale did against Reagan (on tax increases).
It is now an even race, but Ryan will wipe the floor with Joe Biden, and Romney has a much better argument and is at least as good a presenter as the president. He should win.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and, just released, A Matter of Principle. He can be reached at [email protected].