Until last night the US election looked to be a foregone conclusion. The first debate between Governor Romney and President Obama has changed that. Mitt Romney, so often disengaged, vague and robotic, was likeable, passionate and specific. He spoke with clarity and confidence. He had a purpose to his words.
The President, who swept to victory four years ago on a wave of rhetorical brilliance, was equally surprising. The restlessly energetic passion of 2004 and 2008 was replaced with a professorial aloofness. His attempt to appear presidential left him cold and hesitant. When he turned to the camera at the end of the night and asked the voters for four more years, he did so with an utter listlessness in his words.
When Obama speaks with passion there are few sights like it. He stresses his words, leans into his sentences, and has a infectious energy. He raises his voice, he nods his head, he turns to the audience. He talks about the folks he met on a family farm in Iowa or a small town in Ohio. He names people, he pulls you in, he tells you their story and he shows you why they prove America needs healthcare reform, or more jobs, or better schools.
At his best he is unafraid to name and shame those who caused the mess he is rallying against. He talks about the excesses of Wall Street, the Republican faith in deregulation that facilitated it and the irresponsibility of the Bush administration.
Last night he did none of those things.
When Jim Lehrer, the night’s wholly incompetent moderator, turned to Wall Street regulation – something you would think Republicans, especially one who earned $14m last year and paid Wall Street-level taxes on it, would be reluctant to discuss – he talked in the abstract of the need to regulate finance. He lazily recounted Keynesian theory without attribution or resolution, and in return heard a clarity from Romney that had escaped him. He had no answer to Romney’s charge that his reforms have forced 122 small community banks to fail, or done nothing to stop Wall Street banks being too big to fail.
Rather than state something with assertion, as Romney did so successfully, Obama would qualify everything with an academic hesitance. By prefacing his answers with a litany of disclaimers – ‘it was estimated that…’, ‘independent studies looking at this said…’, ‘every study has shown…’ – they lost their force, and allowed Romney to say what most people watching were thinking:
‘Now, you cite a study. There are six other studies that looked at the study you describe and say it’s completely wrong. … There are all these studies out there.’
Romney understood the need for clarity. Obama likely thought his answers recognised the complexity of issues, but doing so is pointless when done in a meandering and vague way. When asked about his balanced approach to cutting the deficit, Obama rambled criminally without any force for over 500 words, on everything from Medicare to schools to oil tax breaks and companies overseas. Romney noted as much and smartly promised to go through each ‘one by one’.
A CNN post-debate poll reflected the subdued mood among the Obama supporters here in Arlington, Virginia. By 67% to 25% Romney was declared the victor. While he went into the night trailing the President in seven of the eight swing states which will decide the election, and needs to win far more of them than the President, last night’s debate has finally made this a race.