Mitt Romney registered a solid win last night, and Obama failed to change the trajectory of the campaign.
Having been tied up most of the day without an opportunity to comment, I’ve nonetheless had the benefit of reviewing lots of commentary from very smart people whose opinions I respect but with whom I couldn’t disagree more. Most of those individuals have concluded that Obama won (by a slight margin), or tied Romney.
The accuracy of the assessment that Obama won depends on precisely what he was supposed to have won. I’ve participated in countless debates at various law schools, argued scores of cases before appellate courts across the country, and made numerous opening and closing arguments before juries. Winning those arguments on “points” is almost always meaningless, unless you’re trying to earn a good grade in forensics class. Such scorekeeping confuses tactics with goals, and ignores the fact that audience and context is more important than hitting every bullet point in your prep outline.
The audience last night (not just those in the debate hall) wasn’t viewing the contest in a vacuum. Like jurors who’ve sat through weeks of testimony, the American people already have a pretty good idea where the case stands before closing arguments. They’re just waiting for a summary of the facts and argument to be rendered by a person they find credible. They don’t need that person to make every available argument on a given issue, nor do they even need the best argument (although that doesn’t hurt).
Romney had already established himself as credible in the first debate. And the testimony of the last four years has already been heard by the American people. Romney summarized that case — as elegantly and persuasively as anyone has — when he responded to the question from the gentleman who asked Obama why he should vote for him a second time. That — not the arguments about drilling, Libya, or tax plans, or Crowley’s pass interference — was the inflection point in the debate. Romney won right there. He advanced toward his goal of winning the election. The rest was background noise.
But Romney didn’t just win. Obama lost. He lost for several reasons, not the least of which is his tendency to drop time bombs into his own arguments. The most damaging, of course, was his response on Libya. It will dog him in next week’s debate and throughout the remainder of the campaign, preventing him from changing the subject — something he desperately needs to do. Amateur hour.
Obama can’t win with a campaign that’s been reduced to “Romney’s rich and I’m not comatose.” His arguments persuaded no one but those set to vote for him anyway. And the polls show that that’s no more than 46–48 percent of voters.