1. Romney was Teddy Roosevelt’s “man who is actually in the arena” last night. If his face was not “marred by dust and sweat and blood,” he was mocked by the off-camera vulgus mobile in the spectators’ gallery (press? Hofstra scholars?), and he was repeatedly given the thumbs down by Candy Crowley. Why is, how can the Commission on Presidential Debates be so inept in setting up neutral coliseums?
2. Romney was too often caught up in the weeds of policy, and he too often failed to make clear what’s at stake in the election. When he did attempt to explain the differences between the two philosophies at issue, he was effective: But he came late to the argument (his strongest) that government doesn’t create jobs, taxes don’t create jobs, Pell grants don’t create jobs. This was Reagan country; but Romney is not as skillful as President Reagan was in explaining why economies grow. Nor did he make the obvious point that there is every reason to think that President Obama, should he get his druthers and take more cash out of citizens’ pockets, will squander it in the way he’s already squandered so much taxpayer money.
3. Romney was too anxiously defensive when Obama lit into him. Ideally his attitude would have been one of disappointment, of sadness almost, that a president desperate to keep his job should waste everyone’s time with red herrings at a time when the country teeters on the fiscal cliff to which his leadership—or as Bob Woodward argues, his lack of leadership—has brought us. “We can argue about our personal portfolios all night, Mr. President, or we can talk about how we’re going to pull this country back from the brink.”
4. That said, the debate was a draw. The media will likely cheer the president for a few days. But if media cheering were decisive, Romney would not, at this moment, be slightly ahead of the president in the Real Clear Politics national poll average; he would not be drawing even with him in New Hampshire and Colorado; he would not be within a few points of him in Pennsylvania and Michigan. Incumbents, when they win, almost always win big: TR in 1904, Coolidge in 1924, FDR in 1936, Ike in 1956, LBJ in 1964, Nixon in 1972, Reagan in 1984, Clinton in 1996. Bush’s margin in 2004 was narrower: but eight years ago today he was leading John Kerry by four points in the RCP average. Obama, by contrast, is under water: Romney leads him by a hair. That’s not good news for an incumbent.