The oddest thing happened after Mitt Romney finally, emphatically, Etch A Sketched himself from flinty-hearted Ayn Randian into the spitting image of "compassionate conservative" George W. Bush in Wednesday’s debate: The right wing didn’t squeal one bit. Au contraire! The same folks who celebrated Romney’s vicious "47 percent" rant, the ones who’ve been policing his every syllable to check for apostasies, the ones who’ve spent years howling at Bush for betraying conservative principles—these same people reacted to the reemergence of “moderate Mitt” like Baby Boomers at a Springsteen show.
Today in Denver, 13 hours after he slumped off stage in inglorious defeat while conservatives set off rhetorical bonfires of celebration across the land, President Obama finally decided it was time to begin debating his opponent. At a post-debate rally that was more of a postmortem, Obama told dispirited Democrats that the previous evening "I met this very spirited fellow who claimed to be Mitt Romney. But it couldn't have been Mitt Romney,” because the real one “has been running around the country for the last year promising $5 trillion in tax cuts that favor the wealthy.
Not since George H.W. Bush’s “I’m so bored I’m looking at my watch” turn in the town-hall debate against Bill Clinton and Ross Perot in 1992 has a sitting president performed as lethargically as Barack Obama did in Denver. The juice that the Democratic Convention injected into his re-election effort was leeched out, in the span of 90 minutes, by his faltering, small-ball effort. The president didn’t just play it safe; he didn’t play at all.
That was not merely the reason Obama lost; it was also the reason Mitt Romney gave him a good old-fashioned stomping. The Mittster came across as a man who can’t wait to be president. Sure, he was overeager at times. Yes, he was unappealingly aggressive at times, especially as he mercilessly steamrolled the hapless and foggy Jim Lehrer. And of course, his “plans” made no sense whatsoever, as the president limply tried to point out. But what Romney projected, in contrast to the droopy incumbent, was an electric energy—the thing that comes across most strongly on TV. Also, in another bright contrast with the president, he did more than drone on about policy particulars; he framed several of his answers by referencing larger principles, as when he talked about not leaving a huge national debt to future generations as a “moral issue.”
So much of politics can be described as an elaborate game of “I know you are, but what am I?” One side makes an attack, and the other side tries to mirror or echo it. For a prime example of this, look no further than yesterday’s attempt by conservative bloggers to turn a five-year-old Barack Obama speech into a campaign scandal, following the “47 percent” video that has inflicted huge damage on Mitt Romney’s campaign.
In recent weeks, as Mitt Romney has been practicing his debate “zingers” and the Obama campaign has been “managing expectations” by portraying the president as the lousiest debater since Admiral Stockdale, plenty of pundits—progressive ones, mostly—have been assuring us that the importance of debates is seriously overblown.