Two media narratives were exploded at the presidential debate Wednesday night.
First, that the race was largely over.
Polls, some of which tend to overestimate Democratic strength anyway, were giving the president potentially decisive leads in key swing states. But it seemed likely after challenger Mitt Romney’s command performance Wednesday night that those polls would tighten, if not flip to Romney’s favor.
Second, the debate proved Mr. Romney does not, in fact, have horns on his head or a foot in his mouth, as many in the media would like you to believe. His grasp of the issues was unassailable, his demeanor genteel and compassionate, his ideas born of common sense and American ideals.
Moreover, the traditional media spin on presidential politics just doesn’t work this time around: The “mainstream” media every four years rush to depict the GOP presidential nominee or vice presidential pick as somehow intellectually deficient. They can’t do that this time, with either Mr. Romney or his razor-sharp vice presidential running mate Paul Ryan.
Meanwhile, nearly every public observer of every political stripe, from pundits to focus groups, found Barack Obama uncharacteristically flat and ineffective at the debate. There weren’t necessarily any memorable one-liners, as there often are, so what may be remembered most from this affair may be what was unsaid: the body language. Romney appeared upright, forthright and engaging; Obama seemed downright downcast.
“I don’t know what he was doing out there,” lamented inveterate Democratic cheerleader Chris Matthews of hard-left cable network MSNBC. “He had his head down; he was enduring the debate rather than fighting it.”
“President Xanax just doesn’t cut it,” wrote The New York Times’ Charles M. Blow.
“You know how much I love the guy,” Andrew Sullivan wrote of Obama on the left-wing website The Daily Beast, “... and I can see the logic of some of Obama’s meandering, weak, professorial arguments. But this was a disaster for the president ... Obama looked tired, even bored; he kept looking down; he had no crisp statements of passion or argument; he wasn’t there. He was entirely defensive, which may have been the strategy. But it was the wrong strategy. At the wrong moment.”
And that’s from the president’s supporters. But most of the nation agreed. A post-debate poll by liberal network CNN found that an astonishing 67 percent of Americans saw Romney as the clear winner in the debate.
“No presidential candidate has topped 60 percent in that question since it was first asked in 1984,” CNN Polling Director Keating Holland was quoted on CNN’s website.
Of course, the important thing is that the Romney “win” was in a debate of substance. Again, even Democratic-leaning observers agreed it was one of the most substantive presidential debates in the television era.
In addition, this debate was America’s first look at the two candidates on the same stage – unfiltered by media spin and unaided by prepared remarks.
No doubt the president’s camp will go on the attack next debate, and it could get personal. That may well backfire. The Obama camp would love to define Mr. Romney in its own terms – but America got its own look at the candidate Wednesday, and liked what it saw and heard.
Instead, we hope the president presents a positive, specific vision for his second term. Voters deserve to have something to compare against the one presented by Mr. Romney at the first debate.