The Worst Debate Performance Ever, Really?

Twenty minutes into the debate between the president and his challenger last week, I sent a friend an email: “Romney is winning this thing.” So I’m quite literally on the record as agreeing with the consensus view about the debate before I knew there was a consensus. Or rather, I should say that I did agree with the consensus—that Barack Obama didn’t do well—as it existed so long ago (six days) that now it seems like the Dawn of Man. The current conclusion, to the extent I can keep up with it, is that it was the worst debate performance in the history of rhetoric. In a fashion typically frenzied when it comes to politics, the consensus has fed on itself and gotten worse by the moment, helped along in no small part by people who claim to be the president’s partisans. Some of the most bitter language I’ve heard about Obama in five years has been muttered in the last five days by Obama supporters, who you would think might have ire left over for a Republican nominee as audacious as Governor Mitt Romney was in flatly denying what he’s been campaigning on for months. Or perhaps they find offering any critique of this to be useless. In situations like this, conservatives get mad and progressives get hysterical. Seizing on the opportunity to attack the president from the left, the usually reliable New York Times columnist Bob Herbert seethed, “It’s time to stop making excuses … LBJ could launch a war on poverty but not Barack Obama.” 

Can we get this Lyndon Johnson thing out of the way first? Because if I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it 20 times from friends who think health-care reform, financial-regulatory reform, the salvation of the auto business, the aversion of a world-wide depression, equal pay for equal work, the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and the tracking of Osama bin Laden are pretty small potatoes: Johnson was a master; he understood power; he knew how to get things done. In lieu of nostalgia, here’s some history. On the momentum of John Kennedy’s martyrdom and then victory in 1964 over the most controversial Republican nominee of the century, Johnson got the Civil Rights Act and Great Society legislation through a Congress that, by 1965, included in the House the Democratic majority of Obama’s dreams—295 seats—and 68 Democrats in the Senate (not just filibuster proof but veto-proof). And here’s the good part: Three years later, Johnson’s own party drove him from the White House. To paraphrase a long-ago vice presidential candidate: I knew LBJ. LBJ was a president of mine. And Bob? LBJ was no LBJ. Scathe away at Obama all you care to—surely he deserves some of it—but let’s leave the rewriting of the past, in the form of irrelevant presidential comparisons, to those other guys a light year or two to the right of us. They’re good at it. They’ve had practice. 

As far as the Worst Debate Performance in the History of Mammalian Utterances (you see how much worse it’s gotten just in the last three minutes?), I noticed something weird. See if you think it’s weird, too. Almost no one is talking about what was actually said. This worst-debate-ever verdict isn’t based on some goofy no-Soviet-domination-of-Eastern-Europe declaration by Obama or some pithy are-you-better-off-than-four-years-ago barb by Romney. Rather, if we could rewind the tape (well, we can), we would note that the verdict is impressionistic more than anything—a perception of the president’s diffidence (he seemed infuriatingly bemused by it all), a contrast in the two men’s energy levels, and Romney indisputably making himself an acceptable alternative to Obama, at least for the moment. But pulling rank and playing my own Dawn of Man card, as a personal witness I can promise that Ronald Reagan was worse in his first 1984 debate with Walter Mondale, when there were serious questions as to whether age had diminished the incumbent’s mental capacity, and that George W. Bush was worse in his first 2004 debate with John Kerry, when the Texan’s command of basic facts was a shambles. To the extent that any of the commentary about the first 2012 debate has been about its content at all, the attention centers on Romney’s attack on Sesame Street and the Orwellian shapeshifting that has become so familiar we now give it no second thought. An hour into the debate, 40 minutes after realizing Romney was winning, it also occurred to me that in his crisp, impressive fashion he was potentially leaving himself vulnerable to an Obama campaign that ought to be running against not Romney the right-winger, which he’s never been, but Romney the liar, which he’s always been. If the American people don’t figure that out, blaming it all on Obama just lets the rest of us, not to mention Mitt Romney, off the hook. 

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