Mitt Romney came out swinging. I also think he came out connecting. I don’t think he lost this debate convincingly. In some respects, he may have won.
I really did expect Mitt to fuck this up. In all fairness, he really didn’t. Mitt Romney came out and sounded entirely reasonable. In retrospect, this was a totally brilliant plan.
Obama was completely unprepared for the onslaught of Reasonable Mitt™, and was clearly taken aback any time he had to formulate a response to something that Reasonable Mitt™ said; it was clear that Obama came out prepared for Campaign Mitt™, and was utterly dumped when the campaign showed up with a candidate who had been briefed on the issues and took positions that were consistent with the majority of the American electorate, regardless of how they matched those that the candidate has been running on for over a year. In short, either Mitt Romney brazenly lied about all of his positions in last night’s debate, or he’s been brazenly lying about all of his positions for all the rest of his campaign to date.
Romney claimed he had no intention of cutting taxes on the wealthy, despite the fact that his budget plan calls for exactly that. Romney claimed to be strong on education funding when his record and budget plan is exactly the opposite. Romney lied about the cost of the Affordable Care Act, and revived the trope about Obama slashing Medicare spending (that his vice presidential candidate voted in favor of but now pretends he’s totally opposed to). In almost every way, shape, and form, the Mitt Romney that showed up for last night’s presidential debate was a completely different candidate than we’ve ever seen before.
In my own defense, I had no reason to expect the performance we got last night. There has been no indication that he was even capable of pulling of the debate showing that he did–this is a man who was shown up by the likes of Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain and Rick Perry, for crying out loud. He’s not a skilled politician. He’s won exactly one election in his life, and it wasn’t against anyone nearly as professional and talented as Barack Obama. There was no reason to expect him to have pulled that debate off as deftly as he did–and yet, he did it.
I don’t really know what happened to Barack Obama last night. The man who adroitly skewered John McCain in 2008, a politician with 3 decades of experience and a far superior set of political instincts than Mitt Romney, sat the night out watching some other Barack Obama stumble through the debate like he was punch drunk right out of the gate. It was painful to watch.
My suspicion is, Romney caught Obama completely off guard by coming out with a 100% bullshit approach to everything. He lied about his positions, he lied about Obama’s record, he lied about his own record. He pulled an incredible feat of logical gymnastics by insisting that the Massachusetts health plan he spearheaded was simultaneously a great model for every other state in the country individually, but a terrible idea when implemented nationally. He insisted that there were studies backing up his budget plans when none exist (no credible, non-partisan studies; there are pro-Romney opinions that back all his claims while remaining equally vague on specifics).
Contrary to my assertion that Romney had abandoned the George W Bush approach of disguising a horrible agenda as a socially responsible, pragmatic, humanistic approach to governance, Romney came just shy of reviving “compassionate conservatism”, not saying the words but describing it in the same glowing, sepia toned language that served Bush so well. If he can keep this up until election day, he just might have a chance–assuming that he can convince the electorate that the guy who showed up last night is who he really is, and not the guy who’s been stumbling ineptly through a slipshod campaign for the past 18 months. Also, while convincing the base voters of his party that the entirety of his campaign, and not the crap he spouted in the first presidential debate, is who he really is. That’s going to be a really tough fence to straddle.
I don’t think what we saw in the debate reflects some sort of hidden genius, a deep well of ability and competence that has been lurking all along beneath Romney’s thick veneer of asinine, plutocratic clumsiness. I think it reflects a great deal of preparation and a clever strategy of re-inventing his entire position on almost every issue to catch Obama off guard. Obama showed up expecting to debate Romney on Romney’s record and his stated, published positions, and instead he faced something completely different. If life was a Tom Cruise movie, Mitt Romney went back to his dressing room after the debate and peeled off a latex Romney mask, revealing John Huntsman underneath. That would at least provide a rational explanation for just how that debate went down as it did.
All of that aside, I still think Obama is the superior politician and a smarter guy. I think Romney’s “all bullshit, all the time” approach was a one shot deal, the kind of trick play you can run once but that won’t ever work again. I am going to double down and predict a far different debate on October 22nd, when Obama gets another shot. This round, his team prepared him to face Mitt Romney, with no reason to expect and no way to predict that he’d be facing Reasonable Mitt™ instead–that’s not likely a mistake they’ll make twice. Furthermore, they’ve given a heads up to the Biden camp of just what to expect when the vice presidential debate comes up a few days from now.
If Ryan bases his entire performance in the upcoming debate on the same mendacity with which he delivered his nomination speech and Romney displayed in the debate, I don’t expect Biden to come up as flat-footed as Obama did. If he does, their campaign just might be in trouble after all.