Whether or not you call this a draw or a win for either candidate depends, I think, on whether you score the debate question by question or by a general impression at its close. If you score it question by question, I don’t see how you can reach any conclusion other than a win for Romney. He answered almost all the questions well, some brilliantly (including difficult ones such as the one about equal pay for women), and where he stumbled — e.g., immigration and, above all, Libya — the president did not gain anything important (or, one should add, anything permanent). Where did Obama hit the ball out of the park in any way similar to Romney’s perfect answer on how he differed from Bush? I can’t recall a single such triumph or even a narrow win, or at least one that wasn’t rooted in an error of Romney’s.
So why isn’t Romney the winner?
There are two answers to that: The first is that he made a complete mess of the Libya point, as everyone seems to acknowledge. He had the chance of a knockout moment and he struck the president a glancing blow on the upper arm. But not winning is not the same as losing. And the answer he gave is not wrong even if, for a moment, the moderator seemed to declare it so.
In fact, I have some sympathy for Ms. Crowley on that. She tried to make a double-edged argument, correcting Romney on a technical point but the president on the substantive truth of the matter, but the audience’s applause meant that only the first part of her argument was properly heard. Consider, however: The one “gotcha” moment in the debate will be corrected in the next few days; the whole world will fall quiet when the topic of Benghazi is raised at next week’s debate; and a perfectionist like Romney will know every detail about it when that happens. So Libya is not Philippi.
The second reason is that in the second half of the debate Romney’s confident and authoritative performance began to falter, and the president’s game picked up correspondingly. Some of this was probably owing to Romney’s feeling that he had given one or two weak answers, on Libya especially; some to simple loss of concentration — the best sluggers can’t maintain absolutely even performance, at which point a sharp opponent senses it and upgrades his game; some to the fact that both men began to square up to each other like drunks in a bar which tends to equalize them in the eyes of viewers.
Whatever the reason, they seemed more evenly matched by the end. And that impression retrospectively colored the judgments of critics on the entire evening.
Which way of judging the debate — question-by-question or general impressions — are most viewers likely to have taken? On balance they probably took the second way — so advantage Obama. But the general impressions they took away surely go beyond the simple “who won?” They are also likely to have absorbed some of the points that both men succeeded in driving home by repetition. (That criterion persuaded me that Biden had won on points last week.) And by that test Romney won hands down because he managed to hammer the president’s record in office again and again — and without a really effective response from the president. In this debate Obama really was weighed down by the burden of office. Obama was less effective at such repetition. So advantage Romney.
But there’s a third element too. When two men brawl, neither wins because the onlookers see the adrenaline rather than hearing the logic. Allowing himself to be provoked into a kind of alpha-male head-butting was Romney’s biggest mistake. Obama had to display aggression last night; Romney did not. And when he kept his cool and his distance, Romney had a kind of natural authority and understated masterfulness that was very presidential — and that won him the first half or more of the debate. Obama is not without authority, but it is a professorial rather than an executive kind. It doesn’t equal Romney’s. Advantage Romney again therefore. But Obama and Romney are equal when it comes down to aggression. And it did come down to aggression. So advantage thrown away.
Not entirely wasted, though. Viewers will recall many things from last night in the next few days. And since most of things are likely to be favorable to Romney, I think that those of my colleagues who gave the debate to Obama are wrong. And as Libya unravels, they will be even more wrong.