My column: Obama tries to look presidential in debate, instead elevates Romney

During a debate in 1998, a veteran Nevada incumbent could barely hide his disdain for his aggressive opponent on stage with him.

He seemed aggrieved to even have to be there, could not conceal his air of superiority and eventually wondered aloud how his challenger, a veterinarian, thought he could interpret the Constitution if he spayed cats and dogs for a living. This reductio ad absurdum epitomized the frustration a U.S. senator named Harry Reid felt that night 14 years ago as he tried to pull away from a spirited challenger named John Ensign.

Harry Reid is no Barack Obama – far, far from it. But his haughty, dismissive demeanor – as if he were saying, “Why are you even up on this stage with me?” – mirrored the president’s smug mien Wednesday evening in Denver in his first debate with Mitt Romney. Appearing presidential, elevating yourself above the fray is one thing; but looking down on your opponent, then watching him elevate above you is quite another.

Obama seemed disinterested, even disengaged while Mitt Romney thrusted and parried, flicked away moderator Jim Lehrer’s interjections and seemed more presidential than…the president.

The almost surreal 90 minutes, sparking conservative glee and liberal angst, will either be remembered Nov. 6 as a turning point in the contest...or a forgotten bump in the road to Obama’s second term.

Debates, as legions of experts have reminded us, rarely make much of a difference in White House races – or most political campaigns. Too many of those watching already have made up their minds and undecided voters rarely have epiphanies based on a debate performance. The news media coverage in the ensuing days, which inevitably affects poll results taken in less proximity to the actual event, is often more important than the impressions of the debate evening.
But amid the unbearably predictable effusions of spin room practitioners after the contest, we are left with an unavoidable reality, not refracted by partisan-colored glasses, that the president lost. Not lost votes, perhaps. But lost credibility, lost momentum and lost an opportunity.
Maybe all of these losses are evanescent – this morning’s job report helps and despite the huge audience (67 million people), we won’t know for a bit if minds were made up or changed. The latter is highly unlikely; the former is questionable.
But the question remains: How could the president and his campaign allow such a debacle to occur, perhaps accomplishing the equivalent of letting a near-defeated opponent back into the game.
The strategy was obvious in hindsight: Team Obama wanted the president to look the part, thus making Romney appear Lilliputian in comparison. But that didn’t turn out to be so, ahem, swift, as Romney’s remarkably focused performance turned him Brobdingnagian instead.
And in the split screen, Obama looked almost oblivious to what Romney was doing to him, with his perpetually earnest turns to the camera surely driving his adherents even more to distraction.
News flash: It’s not presidential to simply repeat talking points and allow your opponent to get away with factual murder. For instance, what was Obama thinking when Romney repeated the $716 billion “cuts from Medicare” canard?
Instead, he continued to rotely disgorge stuff we have heard before, including the $5 trillion tax cut, which, as Romney protested, the Republican nominee has not proposed. But because his fiscal plan is so vague and assumes savings he won’t pinpoint, Team Obama has been able to argue the math doesn’t work and thus graft possibilities onto the blueprint.
I must interject here that the performance of moderator Jim Lehrer cannot be ignored. While some have argued the PBS veteran should have stayed out of the way – and not just Republicans who liked it have made this case – there is no reason to have an interlocutor who is a potted plant. If a moderator simply sits there and asks questions, you might as well have Don Pardoe do it.
Yes, let the candidates engage each other. That can reveal their intellectual depth and dexterity. But if they wander off topic, the moderator must steer them back. If they revert to campaign doggerel, he or she must interrupt. And if they make untrue assertions – that’s why preparation is everything for the moderator, too – he or she must set them straight, lest the public be bamboozled.
Lehrer allowed himself to be run over, especially by Romney, and he meekly acquiesced whenever one of the contenders blew threw his strictures. Obama did not get his clock cleaned because of Lehrer; he got what he deserved. But Lehrer should have played a more forceful role at times.
The after-spinning was predictably lame, especially by Democrats who chose mendacity over discretion.
“Wasn’t the president great in tonight’s debate,” soon-to-be-Rep. Dina Titus crowed in a robocall probably recorded before the event started. (I can only imagine what she was thinking as she watched.) And Rep. Shelley Berkley, clutching at Obama’s Nevada coattails, gushed in a release, also probably pre-written, "President Obama clearly won tonight's debate….”
Really, ladies?
Maybe this will all be forgotten soon, perhaps by the end of the weekend as the 24/7 political world erases events almost as they happen. But when the second debate occurs 10 days hence, the first one will return to view and Obama will feel enormous pressure not to turn a one-night disaster into a campaign-changing series of events.
In 1998, Reid was in control of that Senate race when that debate occurred in which he could barely contain his disgust with having to share the stage with Ensign. He recovered, but the contest was one of the closer ones in Nevada annals: Reid won by 428 votes.
Why? As with all of his elections, Reid’s campaign was much better than his debate performances. Obama may have to hope the same is true for him in the final month.