1. Mitt Romney convincingly portrayed a sympathetic human being.
It was clear to him that he needed to project empathy, and a genuine concern for the “middle class,” and he did so relentlessly.
2. The frantic “all the pressure’s on Mitt!” narrative was complete bullshit.
Romney had acquired such an awful reputation by Wednesday night that most viewers half expected him to pull an impoverished infant from beneath his podium and consume it onstage. He was supposed to be awkward, disingenuous, and snide. This made his performance striking: he played against type. Give Romney credit, here: he recognized that the “debate” was a piece of theater. He knew that his target audience was independent, low-information voters and he presented himself to them as an earnest moderate who just wanted to rouse the country from its torpor.
3. The absence of moral and factual oversight benefits the guy with the smaller conscience.
To come off as moderate, Romney had to lie. He had to say that his tax plan doesn’t cut taxes for rich guys and doesn’t cost five-trillion dollars. He had to promise that he’ll keep the Affordable Care Act’s most popular provisions, and that he’ll eliminate only the bad regulations on Wall Street. These claims are demonstrably false.
But because there is no mechanism in place to punish candidates for lying—a moderator empowered to correct them, say, or a Fourth Estate willing to treat veracity the central measure of an argument’s merit—he got away with it.
Within a minute of the debate’s conclusion, the Arbitron zombies on CNN had managed to describe Obama as “listless” and “angry.” He didn’t want to be there. Blah-blah-blah.
But Obama played to type. He’s a ruminative guy who can summon rhetorical grandeur when he has time to prepare a speech. But he lacks the ability, or willingness, to speak with moral force in live settings. His intellect hasn’t been honed into bullet points by a thousand business presentations. He’s not especially articulate, or forceful. He refuses to call someone who is lying to his face a liar.
To put it in literary terms: he’s a lousy narrator. He can’t spontaneously locate heroism or villainy. He’s a text book, not a novel.
5. The voters don’t want a text book this year.
Last time around, the economy was hemorrhaging. (Or at least the press was hemorrhaging about the economy, which may be the same thing.) Obama’s thoughtful reserve was seen as a virtue, especially weighed against the doddering histrionics of John McCain and his soap opera co-star. As a fiscal strategy, the GOP playbook of soaking the rich and deregulating industry was failing before the public’s eyes.
But four years is a long time in a nation as distracted as America. The recovery has been slow. The systematic economic inequalities initiated by Ronald Reagan and enthusiastically supported by every Republican since (aside from Mitt Romney, who is, as of last night, a compassionate conservative, just like George W. Bush) has left most Americans in a state of impatient grievance.
6. Reality is harder to defend than fantasy.
Obama isn’t just running for office. He’s in office. He has to make decisions, not just promises. He has a record. Whatever problems the country has—whether he caused them or not—they officially belong to him. It doesn’t matter that he took over an economy in free fall, or that Republicans have obstructed him at every turn. To the voters just tuning in, Romney only has to make the case that America is still sick, and that he has the right medicine.
So how’s that for irony? Mitt Romney: the hope and change candidate.
7. Obama will lose if he doesn’t step up.
There’s an old saying in poker: lose early, win late. The GOP ticket has mostly lost thus far. They have been mocked and dismissed and excoriated. This makes Romney’s reinvention that much more compelling: it’s an unexpected wrinkle, a comeback story. The media will spend far more time focused on this notion than whether Romney was telling the truth, because these races are, in the end, major products launches for them. A dirty race is desirable, in fact, just so long as it’s close.
But hey, newsflash: this thing is close. And it’s going to get closer.
The President can no longer afford to sit back and let Team Romney trip over its wingtips. He’s going to have to sharpen his rhetoric. He’s going to have to become a more compelling narrator.
Mitt Romney is no dope. He’s got half a billion dollars to make his case, and some of the most despicable ad men in the business.
Obama knows what he’s up against now.