Obama helps Romney by barely debating
Mitt Romney won.
It didn't hurt that in a debate in which Big Bird played prominently, President Obama was as much a presence as the "Sesame Street" avian's elusive friend, Snuffleupagus. Ahead in the polls because of Romney's leaked "47 percent" comments, Obama often opted not to engage his opponent. Instead he spent much of the debate staring down at his podium, which didn't come off as very confident.
Romney, meanwhile, was as affable as he's been all campaign. He smiled, kept his chin up, and told jokes. Even good jokes.
As they fact-check and pick apart the statements of whichever candidate they don't like, hardcore partisans will say appearances and small exchanges don't matter. Tell it to the unshaven Richard Nixon of 1960 or the huffing, sighing Al Gore of 2000. In fact, looks and small gestures may be the only things that matter, given how tuned out much of the electorate is to actual policy. Obama's downward glances and one particularly snappy exchange may come back to haunt him.
Why sweat the small stuff? Because elections in our country are decided not by the people who care about them the most, but by those who often care the least. The debates are for the often-underinformed undecideds. Obama tried to bang one policy point into their heads – Romney wants a $5 trillion tax cut – but it seems unlikely to resonate.
Many undecideds probably didn't even watch the debates. So here are the points they will gather, second-hand, from late-night shows and Twitter:
>>Romney wants to cut funding for PBS, including Big Bird.
>>Obama had an anniversary.
They may also hear that PBS's Jim Lehrer did a terrible job as moderator. I don't agree. A moderator who does an equally bad job handling both candidates is at least fair. And Lehrer was fair.
It wasn't like the candidates made his job easy. From the start, Romney claimed he wasn't getting enough chances to speak, which made him look like more of an underdog than he was going in. Romney also noted that Lehrer, too, would be affected by PBS cuts, though Romney said he liked Lehrer personally.
Lehrer had to sit there and take it, rather than say anything that could come off as biased.
Obama, meanwhile, hit his low point when he accused Lehrer of costing him five seconds by interrupting. He then went on for at least 20 seconds. It was a moment reminiscent of Obama's dismissive "you're likeable enough, Hillary" comment in the 2008 Democratic candidate debates.
Democrats will shake their heads about why he wasn't as confrontational with Romney. He tried, again and again, to claim that Romney wanted a $5 trillion tax cut. That led to a strange, ongoing exchange in which the president insisted his opponent wanted lower taxes – and the opponent vigorously denied it.
The meat of Obama's argument is that Romney favors the rich, who Obama said would disproportionately benefit from the cut. But that was as close as Obama came to bringing up Romney's secretly recorded comment that 47 percent of Americans were in the bag for Obama because they rely on the government.
Romney denied the $5 trillion figure, getting off one of his better jokes of the night: "I've got five boys. I'm used to someone repeating something that’s not true and hoping I'll believe it."
His other best joke came at the beginning, when Obama started the debate by noting that he was marking his 20th wedding anniversary. There were at least two potential reads on that decision. The positive one is that he's a good husband to the widely admired Michelle Obama. The negative one is that he believed, egotistically, that Americans would rather hear about his personal celebration than about policy.
Romney handled the moment well. He congratulated Obama, and earned a laugh by joking that there was no more romantic way for him to mark the big night than by spending it with him.
From there, Romney presented himself again and again as a champion of the middle-class, despite his vast personal fortune and the fact that his father was a governor and presidential candidate – facts that make him an exceptionally privileged human being.
Throughout the campaign, Obama and his team have tried to paint Romney, former head of the management firm Bain Capital, as personally responsible for many of the problems plaguing our country: lost manufacturing jobs, outsourcing, offshore tax havens. But Obama didn't risk any of those attacks Wednesday, instead allowing Romney's presentation of himself to go unchecked.
Obama ended the debate by accusing Romney of not standing up to "the more extreme elements" of his party. That sounded like an attack line that could stick, but it was too late. The debate was over.