It is not easy to dominate an incumbent president for 90 minutes on live national television, but Mitt Romney did so last night. In the strongest performance of his 2012 campaign and perhaps his political career, Governor Romney was disarmingly gracious, respectful, tough, unyielding, fact-laden, and principled in explaining why Obama’s policies have utterly failed and, more important, detailed his own plan for putting America on a new and different path. He won from the opening round until his closing statement. Had it been a fight, a referee would have stopped it.
For that reason, the focus of post-debate commentary has been on Romney’s superior style and debating points. But Romney was not merely a better debater; he offered a coherent and compelling vision for the future of the country with greater moral and philosophical clarity than the incumbent. On the fundamental question of the proper role of government, Romney spontaneously and with conviction invoked the Declaration and the Constitution, arguing that those charter documents guaranteed life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness by limiting the federal government’s reach and devolving all other power to the various states, communities, and free individuals. It was a remarkable defense of the foundations of American liberty.
For someone often accused of ideological malleability or possessing no core, Romney displayed conservative convictions that were both refreshing and surprising. Clearly many underestimated him, including his opponent. Romney had a superior command of the facts, a contextual understanding of the issues, and a grasp of policy details that conveyed strong leadership. The American people right now are hungering for strong, principled leaders. By the end of the debate, it appeared that Romney was the president and Obama his inexperienced, unprepared challenger.
Thirty-three days is an eternity in politics and anything can happen between now and November 6, as last night demonstrated. Obama is a still-formidable, facile, and talented foe, not to be counted out, as Hillary Clinton learned four years ago. But Romney has altered the trajectory of this race. My sense is we are likely to see what we always expected from this campaign: a hard-fought, highly competitive contest that goes to the wire.