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The Strategic Flaw in Obama’s Debate Performance

The most telling moment of the first presidential debate came when Jim Lehrer asked the candidates to discuss their differences on Social Security. Obama could have mentioned how GOP leaders, including Romney’s own running mate, have supported handing part of the program over to Wall Street. He could have held up Social Security as a perfect example of government benefits that people earn by working hard all their lives—not, as Governor Romney might have it, an enabler of moochers. Instead, the president began his response by assuring voters that both he and his rival were equally well-intentioned. “I suspect that, on Social Security, we've got a somewhat similar position. … the basic structure is sound.” 

Romney, for his part, was all-in. He quickly pivoted to that other entitlement program and attacked Obama for cutting $716 billion from Medicare to pay for his health care bill, even though Paul Ryan has proposed the exact same cuts. With Obama essentially vouching for his good faith, he assured future generations that “I’ve got proposals to make sure Medicare and Social Security are there for them without any question.”

It was the story of the night: Obama not just in a defensive crouch but a stunningly conservative one at that, and Romney pressing his indictment of Obama while looking authoritative, eminently reasonable, and even emotive at times. 

For what it’s worth, I don’t fault Obama for some of his strategic choices. Liberals are stewing over his refusal to slap Romney for his infamous 47-percent riff. I think Obama made the right call. Pretty much anyone for whom that was likely to matter has already heard the Romney recording. By reminding them of it, Obama risked looking overly snide or cutting. 

More broadly, I’d argue that the debate structurally favored Romney. As James Fallows has persuasively argued, Romney is an impressive performer when he can anticipate questions: He is impeccably prepared and executes well. He only struggles when the debates take a surprising turn. But with Obama up several points in the national polls, and nearly uncatchable in swing states like Ohio, there was no incentive for Obama to get creative. That meant Romney was very likely to have a good night. 

The problem was that Obama proceeded as though playing it safe, which was strategically defensible, was at odds with defining Romney. But these two things are actually perfectly consistent. The Obama campaign has done a masterful job portraying Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat, then connecting that character profile (Romney defenders would say caricature) with a set of policies that favor the wealthy over the working stiff: upper-income tax cuts, voucher-izing Medicare, draconian spending cuts. Which is to say, they fleshed out a detailed portrait of their opponent and what he stood for, and they made it stick. There was nothing especially risky about continuing in that vein tonight. The campaign has been field-testing those themes for the better part of six months. 

Had Obama been on his game, he would have hammered away on this relentlessly. Every response would have explained how Romney’s polices favor people like himself, who don’t need help, and short-change the people who do. Social Security, Medicare, health care, education—pretty much any question Jim Lehrer could have thrown at him could have been connected to this larger picture. Instead, Obama spent too much time in the weeds of his own proposals. He moved dangerously close to Walter Mondale territory when arguing for tax increases as part of any deficit deal, and practically invited more “death panel” charges by litigating his payment advisory board on health care. While he did attack Romney over the details of his tax-cut plan, and nodded at some of Romney’s rich-guy greatest hits (“you should borrow money from your parents to go to college”), he never spun them out into a coherent worldview. They seemed disjointed as a result. 

Romney, on the other hand, debated like a candidate completely aware that the game wasn’t about details, but what the details summed to. Every response was exquisitely calibrated to reveal a man who feels middle-class pain and has no ideology other than what works (to borrow an Obama mantra from 2008). He started out with anecdotes about struggling women he’d met in Dayton and Denver. He portrayed himself as an advocate of expanding health care and regulating Wall Street. His only objections to Obama’s accomplishments on these fronts were entirely practical: to the rising healthcare costs Obamacare would bring and the clunky government bureaucracy that would run it; to the way Dodd-Frank labeled the five biggest banks too-big-to-fail (which, he argued, would commit the government to backstopping them, though the truth is that it also earns them a lot more government scrutiny). 

In reality, Romney spent most of the last year-and-a-half telling voters he wanted to wipe these measures off the books, with only the vaguest suggestion of what he might do instead. (Obama’s best line of the night came when he urged voters to ask themselves, “[I]s the reason that Governor Romney is keeping all these plans to replace [my programs] secret because they’re too good?” which worked on a variety of levels.) But tonight he was simply Romney the businessman-technocrat, willing to tinker here and there—keep this, lose that—until he stumbled on the right answer. 

In the end, between Obama’s muddle and Romney’s disciplined reinvention, I couldn’t help wondering if the net effect of the 47 percent flap—perhaps even the entire Obama framing effort—was to benefit the challenger onstage. For the past few weeks, if not the past several months, we’ve heard that Mitt Romney is a heartless corporate raider who ships his money offshore and sneers at poor people for kicks. This has inflicted real damage on his presidential prospects. But, at least last night, the upshot was to set an incredibly low bar that Romney—with his anecdotes and his pragmatism—easily cleared. 

Will it matter? Certainly not as much as the liberal hyper-ventilators seem to think. As the political scientists tell us, there are only so many undecided voters who tune into these spectacles. The only way a debate could really move poll numbers is if a candidate committed an easily understood, self-sabotaging gaffe that instantly ricocheted across the cable dial. Obama clearly avoided that tonight, and so I don’t expect a major tightening.

But what Romney’s performance will do is re-energize the Republican elites who were on the verge of ditching him after these last four soul-crushing weeks. Without them, Romney had no hope of winning—no one to help raise money, no one to plead his case in the media, no one to pitch their constituents for him. With them, he has a fighting chance. He can hang around long enough to capitalize on an Obama mistake. That’s not exactly a game-changer. But considering that the only possible game-changer last night was a performance that ended his candidacy, Team Romney will probably take it. 

Follow me on twitter: @noamscheiber