There is a whole lot wrong with the way the media reports debates, on that we can all agree, I think. The overemphasis on who "won" and "lost," for starters. The inevitable boiling-down of ninety minutes into a nine-second soundbite from both candidates (which we'll see everyone agree on by tomorrow morning).
In writing about debates, I don't think I've ever called a "winner" and "loser" because it's so rare that a debate happens where one candidate is so overwhelmingly better than the other. And often times the lessons the media takes away from the debates is the wrong one -- some "bad gaffe" that the voters didn't care much about when it actually happened.
So all I'm saying, up front, is don't look for "Obama won!" or "Romney won!" sorts of pronouncements in this column, because they won't be forthcoming.
Caveats aside, here are some general thoughts before I peruse my notes taken during the debate itself. I thought both candidates turned in an adequate, but not overwhelming, performance this evening.
Mitt Romney had a lot to prove tonight, and at times he seemed desperate and annoyed. But walking the tightrope he had to walk is tough, and one of his main goals this evening was to get feisty with President Obama -- which he succeeded in doing. Appearing feisty without going overboard into "angry" or "combative" or any other negative sort of emotion is a very tough thing to pull off on national television.
Mitt Romney was aggressive in his answers. He didn't "go for the throat" in an off-putting way, but he did essentially call Obama a liar several times, which was feisty enough. I think Republicans who have been getting worried over Romney's campaign will be pleased with this performance. How it came across to the American public, we'll have to wait and see. From my admittedly biased perspective, Romney started strong, got dangerously close to sheer desperation, and then pulled back for a strong close. But again, that has to be seen as nothing more than a gut level personal reaction, and my gut doesn't put up with a whole lot of Republican talking points.
Barack Obama didn't lose his cool all evening, and didn't rise much to Romney's baiting. Obama seemed competent and collected, although at the start he was tense and rushing his answers a bit. Obama's biggest challenge tonight was to get his answers as short as possible, and while he started off OK on this front, as the evening wore on his answers seemed to get longer and longer. Obama played offense and defense admirably well, but wasn't attacking at the same level as Romney. Again, how this comes off to the American public is anyone's guess. For those who like to see calm confidence, they'll probably approve of Obama's performance, while those who like more of a fighter will probably be drawn to Romney's performance tonight. Obama missed a few opportunities to counter some of what Romney was saying tonight, but I'll get to specifics in a bit.
Overall, it seemed that Jim Lehrer lost all control of the event very early on. Mitt Romney seemed, at times, to be debating Jim more than he was debating Obama. The supposed 15-minute first segment went on for over 25 minutes, and things went downhill from there.
One thing is for sure, the fact checkers are going to have a field day tomorrow. Both men's answers were dense with detail at times, and both made claims that seem very easy to check, so we'll all be enjoying reading the fact-checking bonanza tomorrow morning. But even so, with all these reams of "facts" to check, I thought both men "talked past" each other much more than they did answering the questions put to them, or answering each other's criticisms. I suppose modern debates are always thus, but it was a little disappointing not to see the two candidates engage each other directly more.
In fact, not knowing what the specific rules of the debate were, it seemed odd that neither man really directly addressed his opponent much at all. The few times when they did both seem aware that there was another man on stage with them were the most interesting of the entire debate.
OK, some specific comments from my scribbled notes. Romney's main theme of the evening (at least, what he tried to make his theme) was either an "applause line" or "laugh line" that fell flat, since the audience wasn't allowed to do either: "Obama wants trickle-down government." Now, you just know some political consultant got paid a hefty amount to come up with that, but other than Romney hitting this line once at the beginning and once at the end, it really kind of had nowhere to go.
Obama's main point seemed mostly to be "Where are Romney's specifics?" which he made several times in several different ways. We'll see whether this got through or not, but it was a theme that should sound familiar since it has been a question asked by not just lefty media but several prominent Republican pundits.
Romney was supposed to have "zingers" in his pocket, that he'd be using all night. Other than at the very end, I didn't really notice any zingers at all. Romney's other reported tactic was going to be "correcting" Obama's "falsehoods," which he did use more effectively and steadily throughout the evening (see: comment on fact checkers' field day). Both men were filling the air with figures, although for the most part Obama was talking about his plans while Romney was talking about his opponents, when tossing the numbers around.
Obama tried a few jokes (more "jokes" than "zingers" for the most part), including one on Donald Trump. Some were sort of funny, but again, with a silenced audience it's hard to tell if any of them will "have legs." Both men tried, at times, speaking directly to the camera ("I want to address the American people right now..."), which is always an effective tactic for any politician.
Romney inexplicably only came up with one federal government program to cut -- PBS. Shades of Romney visiting London, since Jim Lehrer was sitting right in front of him.
Jim Lehrer tried to get one solid answer out of Romney with "Do you support Simpson/Bowles?" but Romney punted with "I've got my own plan."
About a half an hour in was when Romney started getting as feisty as he knows how to. Again, different people will have different reactions, but it came off as desperation and not very authentic to me. This was around the same time Romney started almost every answer by arguing with Lehrer.
The best moment of the debate for me was a simple interaction, when Romney tried to say that tax breaks for oil companies were somehow OK because they'd been around "for 100 years" and Obama pounced with a quick: "It's time to end it!" I really would have liked to see much more of this direct back-and-forth, but neither candidate did a whole lot of directly answering each other tonight other than isolated moments.
Obama showed Romney how to personalize an issue without pandering by talking about his grandmother when it came to Social Security. Romney was trying to flex his empathy muscle all night, but none of it sounded anywhere near as authentic as Obama's grandmother.
Obama pretty much mopped the floor with Romney on the Medicare segment, and Romney sounded a tad bit elitist about how he'd "choose a private plan" since we all know the cost of any such plan won't be an issue for him. Obama quoted AARP repeatedly, which worked a lot better.
But Obama missed two big openings on the whole issue. Number one: "If that $716 billion savings in Medicare is so wrong, why did Paul Ryan include it in his budget?!?" Number two: "We've tried private insurance competing with Medicare. It was sold to us as a way to keep costs down through the free market. You know what? It didn't work as advertised -- Medicare Advantage is much more expensive than it was sold as being, and that is part of the savings we'll be accomplishing."
Obama's biggest line of the night will likely be one of the ones where he essentially says "We don't know the details of Romney's plans -- any of them!" There was one in there about secret plans which would be "too good for the middle class," but I didn't write the whole thing down, sorry.
At the end, Romney finally pulled out one of his zingers: "You are entitled to your own airplane and your own house, but not to your own facts." Of course, this could backfire on Romney depending on what the fact checkers have to say tomorrow, so we'll see. As zingers go, it really wasn't all that zingy. To be fair, Obama's "Romney's going to have a busy first day, what with repealing Obamacare and all" zinger was pretty much of a wet noodle as well. Obama did have one funny line at the end about how Mitt would likely agree that he was "not a perfect president" though.
Both men's closing speeches were sort of run-of-the-mill. Obama concentrated on optimism and the future more, while Romney concentrated more on attacking Obama.
Overall, Romney was said to be facing a make-or-break moment tonight. He didn't fall on his metaphorical face, he didn't do anything wildly surprising. He turned in a feisty performance, which was one of his main goals. How much this will convince anyone who is not already backing him remains to be seen. Obama entered the debate needing nothing better than a draw, and that's seemingly what he got, in the end. Both men made their case, pretty much ignored each other's points, and walked all over the moderator in various ways. We'll see what the public has to say about it in the next few days.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant