I have written in this space before that President Obama is the first incumbent since Martin Van Buren in 1840 to seek reelection without running on his record. He is also the first incumbent in my time as an observer, which goes back to the Eisenhower reelection campaign in 1956, who is practically avoiding the principal issue of the campaign. Given the parameters within which his reelection campaign has been operating, only the utter incompetence of the Republican nominee could have failed to make the first debate a challenging evening for the president.
The campaign to date of the nominee, Governor Romney, incited high expectations and fervent hopes among the Democrats and their hallelujah chorus in the mainstream media that he would stumble around like a three-legged horse, make repeated references to being a millionaire, and counter-punch the president like a prizefighter with pillows rather than boxing gloves on his fists. We all, to some degree, believe what we want to believe, but the Obama camp, encouraged by the Gadarene march of preposterous seekers of the Republican nomination, the abstention from the race of the strongest potential candidates, and the propensity of Mitt Romney to fierce and lethal attacks of foot-in-mouth disease, worked itself determinedly up to a sense of invulnerability. (I have abandoned my boycott of Romney’s middle name as unpresidential, because my efforts to create a boomlet for WMR have failed and no one came forward to finance a WMRPAC.)
All that was really needed to make it a dramatic evening was for Romney to point out a few notorious statistics on the economy, put forth some alternative economic approaches, and remind everyone that the incumbent has been there for four years and isn’t running against George W. Bush (not that the Democrats made a very good job of that when they had the chance — he won every election he ever fought, for governor of Texas and president). The Republicans had thus brilliantly managed the cultivation of expectations: It was generally anticipated that the mellifluous talents of self-exculpation of the president, and the chronic ineptitude of the challenger — already magnified to folkloric status by the Democratic amen corner in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time, and the networks except Fox — would produce another soporific interlude on the inexorable parade-march to reelection.
It was my good fortune to publish elsewhere, in a widely circulated column on the day of the debate, the reflection that (despite the coordinated boosterism around Obama, and the very slow start out of the blocks by the Republicans from their Tampa convention) Obama was leading only by between one and six points, or between 1 and 7.5 million votes in an anticipated electorate of 130 million — a margin that showed how serious are the country’s reservations about the incumbent. This conforms to the consistent reports that the president’s job-approval rating never exceeds the disapproval rating in any poll by more than two points, and frequently trails it.
The Democratic strategists had got to this point on Romney’s ineffectuality, and the invisibility of Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, a potentially mortal weapon against the regime’s fiscal shortcomings. The Democrats had not had to defend their record and had taken the offensive for three months with a peppy campaign to smear the Republicans as a Tea Party–dominated Flat Earth Society, devoted to giving income supplements to billionaires, forcing women into chastity belts, burning pro-choice advocates at the stake, plucking out the tongues of vocal feminists with red-hot tongs, and going to war with as many countries as possible. They had, in fact, grossly overplayed their hand, and opened only a very narrow lead; as some of us pointed out, a little concentrated fire from the Republican nominees would do a great deal of damage to the Democratic campaign very quickly.
The regime was always going to have a lot of problems with the basic facts that it had added over $17,000 of debt for every man, woman, and child in the country in four years; that there were nearly 5 million fewer employed people in the country than four years ago; that there is stagnation in parts of the economy yet; and that this is all that prevents a doubling of the gasoline and many food prices and halving of the value of the dollar opposite gold from being as conspicuous as they normally would be. Add to all this the humiliating disasters of “engagement” with Iran, “reset” with Russia, the surrealistic fiasco of the pursuit of green jobs, the $100 billion annual Danegeld fund for Third World despots because the advanced countries emitted carbon in their successful economies, the domestic replication of that lunacy in cap-and-trade, and a health-care reform the country doesn’t approve and that was grossly misrepresented.
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.