Vice presidential debates are usually mere sideshows. But tomorrow’s face-off in Kentucky might be quite different. Barack Obama’s disastrous performance last week was the boost Mitt Romney needed to erase the president’s post-convention gains and turn the race into a genuine toss-up. The Republican has the momentum, and he’s shifted to more moderate rhetoric in an attempt to appeal to independent and undecided voters. Obama doesn’t get another crack at Romney until next week, so it’s up to Joe Biden to stanch the bleeding and resuscitate Democratic hopes.
It’s time to declare a national moratorium on Obama supporters watching poll numbers. Seriously: Nothing would do more to improve the nation’s collective mental health, right about now, than a mass tune-out of Nate Silver, Real Clear Politics, and every other outlet that spews and compiles and analyzes the data Obamians have taken to following with a maniacal and hysteria-inducing obsessiveness since last Wednesday's Worst Debate in the History of Mankind.
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.”