In the days since last week’s presidential debate, the Democrats have fallen into a very peculiar sort of disarray. Four days on, they are still, and apparently on purpose, sustaining the “Romney won big” story by furiously making excuses for Obama’s poor performance. He didn’t do that badly, but listening to Obama himself, his campaign, and his bewildered surrogates the last few days you would think that Obama was utterly destroyed by some kind of evil genius who was equal parts master actor, pathological liar, and bully. You should watch the debate again to see how silly this is. And it’s hard to understand why the Democrats continue to advance this story. I bet that if you polled people today about who won and lost the debate, Obama would do even worse than he did in Wednesday night’s instant polls, thanks to his and his campaign’s continuing self flagellation.
The Democrats also don’t seem to have fully considered what their excuses are communicating about Romney’s agenda. Romney advanced a series of principles and policies in the debate, and rather than argue that these are bad for the country, the Democrats are basically arguing that Romney’s ideas are too good to be true—so good, moderate, and sensible that they couldn’t really be Mitt Romney’s, and therefore that Romney is not telling the truth about his agenda. These charges of dishonesty aren’t just false (though they are false), they’re also downright strange. A Republican candidate stands before 60 million voters and commits to an agenda and his opponent responds that this isn’t really his agenda, and that voters should instead look to Democratic attack ads and liberal think-tank papers to learn what the Republican is proposing. That’s the strategy?
One explanation for this bizarre (though surely temporary) breakdown on the left would have to be what psychologists call projection. On Face the Nation, David Axelrod said Romney “walked away from his record” in the debate. On Thursday, the president himself said “The man onstage last night, he does not want to be held accountable for the real Mitt Romney’s decisions and what he’s been saying for the last year, and that’s because he knows full well that we don’t want what he’s been selling for the last year.” Walking away from his record and trying not to be held accountable for his unpopular decisions—does that sound like anyone you know?
And that really points to what must be the deepest reason for the Democrats’ strange response to the debate. The president can’t run on his record, and he isn’t proposing a second term agenda. All he has to run on is the caricature of Mitt Romney that his campaign, his surrogates, and liberal opinion makers in the press have been fashioning for a year. Their goal has been to prevent the election from becoming a referendum on the incumbent, which the Romney campaign had clearly hoped it could be, and to make it not even a choice election but a referendum on the challenger. Obama seemed to have a remarkable degree of success with this approach, but the debate represented Romney’s response: Rather than continue to insist that the election should simply be a referendum on Obama, Romney effectively presented a case for seeing it as a choice between two agendas, and presented his own proposals and vision in his own terms. The Obama campaign had been able to paint Romney in scary colors for months because Romney had declined to describe himself and his agenda much. Now that he’s finally running for president, the Democrats have a problem.
But if that’s their predicament, then surely their panicked response of the last few days is only making things worse. They can’t really expect people to treat them as a trusted source about Romney’s agenda and ignore Romney himself. But if they’ve lost control of the Romney story—even if they merely fight it to a draw—they don’t have much of a case to make for themselves. The public is unhappy with the economy and the direction of the country, and Obama is not proposing to do anything differently if he is given another four years.
So what do they do next? Continue to insist that Romney’s agenda is what they say it is and not what Romney himself is plainly promising voters? Try more aggressive personal attacks against Romney? Defend the Obama record? Not exactly a wealth of great options. I do think we can be sure of one thing, though: Regardless of how Biden and Obama do in the coming debates, the Left will not acknowledge dissatisfaction again. They will be described by the press and liberal surrogates as having made a triumphant comeback. Fortunately, voters who watch (as an extraordinary number are apparently inclined to do this year) tend to form their own opinions about such things, and therefore much depends on what and how they actually do, and whether Romney and Ryan can sustain their newly assertive and substantive case to the public.