I watched last night’s debate in a venue not favorable to careful analysis of the dialectics, but well suited to observing an overwhelmingly liberal audience’s reaction: the bar at the Harvard Club in midtown Manhattan. In the contest between the guy with the Harvard Law degree and the guy with the Harvard Law and the Harvard Business degrees, the crowd was not torn. Give us the Harvard Law Review president, they sighed, tittering whenever the joint-degree recipient made a slip, and cheering when their champion scored a point.
But there were few titters and even fewer cheers last night. The room felt positively glum, bar patrons crossing their arms tightly as they gazed upward at the television screens. Oh, there were a few of us drinking merrily, but we tried not to interfere with the bad karma in the place.
Three quick observations. First, more moderators should be like Jim Lehrer. Ineffectuality ought to be the prime qualification for the job. Allowing the debaters to have their say actually helped turn this into something resembling a debate rather than a joint press conference. Romney is not so good on the stump, but in this format he got in touch with his inner pitch man and business analyst, and he delivered the goods. Actually, he was even better than that. He built the rudiments of a political case against the incumbent.
Second, it was remarkable how adroitly Romney revived Romneycare’s reputation by turning it into evidence of bipartisanship, thus liberating his credentials as a successful governor of Massachusetts. He didn’t need to lean on Bain Capital so much because he could refer to his political career, previously kept bound and gagged in the basement of his Belmont mansion.
But that career has its drawbacks. He boasted of his cordial cooperation with the state legislature, then 87 percent Democratic. Fine, but that hardly sounds like the opening notes of a soaring chorus in favor of a Republican Senate in 2012. If he wins on this basis, he may find more opportunities for bipartisanship than conservatives will like. As Jonah put it, we’ve been warned.