For those of us who are fans of political bloodsport, a particularly entertaining, gore slicked and gladiatorial race for the Grand Old Party nod gave way to an atmosphere around the Presidential election--Harry Reid histrionics and leaked Mother Jones video tapes aside--that had cooled considerably; for such a polarizing election, the discourse between the two candidates themselves had basically dissolved into laughable or highfalutin posturing and Super PAC dollars so that, despite having loaded guns on both sides of the aisle, with Reid and Biden on the Left, everyone with a microphone and a bully pulpit on the Right, President Obama and Governor Romney did precious little attacking of each other. With the first debate in Denver, however, those of us who take great joy in political single combat eagerly anticipated a return of the flesh rending, marrow sucking, brutal politics of the slog to Tampa. This is, after all, the most brutal, savage and important race in the world.
Following a comical campaign of expectation lowering by everyone save Chris Christie (the Daily show joked that the Obama campaign would be satisfied if the President did not pull out his … vice president, and whip it around while yelling "Look at Marine One!" while Romney's camp just wanted him to stay upright) it was finally time for the nation to see what the months of preparation and special measures--bringing in surrogate debaters, akin to a football scout team, and building fake stages, the political equivalent to pumping in artificial crowd noise--had honed their respective political champions into.
Let us be clear on one point that should be easy to agree upon for the whole political spectrum: The most definite loser of last night's debate was moderator Jim Lehrer, of PBS. Lehrer held about as tough as an NFL replacement ref, and was consistently steamrolled in all aspects of the debate. Time constraints and the capsule structure went out the window almost immediately, and Lehrer appeared more flustered and flummoxed than either debater for most of the night, shell shocked at how little respect he was receiving and how quickly control spiraled out of his grasp.
Joining Lehrer in the losing column was the incumbent, as Obama, all black suit and blue power tie and strangely flinty exterior, came out of the gate sluggish and allowed Romney to flex all of the muscle he could muster in the opening rounds of the debate. It is not unusual for the challenger to win the first debate; he has the advantage of newness, of being a fresh face, a man with nothing to lose and everything to gain and, therefore, an extremely dangerous opponent. Add to this the fact that, Tea Party kowtowing aside, Romney is as solid a politician's politician as they come and domestic policy has been his tent pole and the recipe was there for an early victory.
Romney took to the debate like a doberman, perfectly handsome yet smoldering, ready to attack and holding strong to any point on which he sunk teeth. There were few points of serious contention amid the flurry of numbers, accusations and even the lonely fact thrown amidst the two, and the AP's Calvin Woodward quickly took to the web to run down some of the most egregious fallacies on both sides. Chief among them was Obama's continued assertion that Romney's economic blueprint would consist of a $5 trillion tax cut, $2 trillion in unasked for military spending and an extra trillion from the continuation of the Bush cuts, with his endgame being that there would be no possible way for this plan to reduce the deficit without having to raise the burden on someone--most likely the middle class.
Governor Romney vehemently denied that his tax plan calls for a $5 trillion cut, and asserted that he would not raise the rates on the middle class. He maintained that his plan consisted of lowering rates while at the same time closing loop holes, credits, deductions and exemptions, which will boost economic growth, leading to more working Americans paying taxes. This, combined with spending cuts, would balance the federal budget. Where, then, does Obama's $5 trillion claim--which he refused to back down from--come from?
According to Woodward, Obama's figure comes from an extrapolation of the tax plan across a decade from the Tax Policy Center, something not unusual inside the Beltway, but which only takes into account Romney's stated plans to reduce and eliminate taxes; not included in the calculation is the closure of the loop holes and deductions, the critical second piece to Mitt's two pronged approach. This perhaps could have been a purposeful attack, however. The President routinely drove home Romney's lack of details as his greatest weakness, and his $5 trillion figure only holds some water because the details of the specific closures and adjustments that would balance the tax plan have not been released. If Romney wished to truly refute Obama's claims, he would have had to tip his hand.
Hammering upon the nebulousness of Romney's policies was perhaps the President's hardest hitting point. Question marks dot the challenger's policies in numerous troubling places, not the least of which are in his budget plans and his system that will replace Obamacare, and the President's camp rightly recognized these holes as his campaign's Achilles' heel, something that not only allows Obama to fill in the blanks for him--the $5 trillion and assumed middle class burden--but could also inspire tremendous unease in the minds of the voters. Precious few explicit actions were mentioned by Governor Romney, save repealing Obamacare, cutting PBS funding, and a state driven, personal choice, follow-the-child (read: charter school) approach to education reform. Obama played the shark to Romney's doberman; rather than the sensationalized killing machine of fiction, he resembled more the real thing, cold, almost aloof, but still oozing the power and danger that one only holds in their own environment. When he did attack, it was swift and calculated, evoking the ghost of George W. Bush to help illustrate the challenges that awaited him in the Oval Office and specifically stating that Romney seemed to have a hard time saying "no" to the more radical elements in his party, a skill crucial to anyone wishing to wield the full might of the executive branch.
The latter point was a direct riposte to the most brilliant strategy Romney utilized in Denver, a tacking towards the center that found the governor not only admitting to occurrences from the dusty paste of his Massachusetts reign but even standing proudly upon them, including how his state was the model for Obamacare and flipping the traditional script on the President, haranguing him about the misappropriation of facts and an unwillingness to reach across the aisle, a tactic so explicitly pornographic in its brazenness--no one does bipartisan gridlock like this current crop of Republicans; for them, it is beyond science and art and something closer, now, to religion--that it landed like the hook Joe Frazier dropped the Butterfly with. Combined with a shot at Obama's "trickle down government" approach to economic recovery, which gave Romney a catchy, easily accessible phrase upon which to build this fall, his offensive coordinators were surely lighting cigars and pouring Scotch in the war room.
Obama's stoic, borderline passive approach led to him landing few punches in the opening rounds before finally crystalizing and holding strong. Aside from the demand for details, which will become critical and which Romney will have to face, eventually, the only other dig with emotional resonance Obama landed involved Mitt's remarks to Otterbein students to borrow money from their parents, if they have to. This stuck to the party line of painting Romney as an Ivory Tower modern aristocrat, a man out of touch with the nation's middle and working class who built a career upon opportunities most of us will never know, but was allowed to simply float in the air instead of being used as a set up for a more devastating attack.
Despite his more refined and aggressive approach, this was not an overwhelming victory for Romney. His best chances to swing the election lie in domestic policy, and, to his credit, he won the debate he was supposed to. He adeptly maneuvered himself away from the hard right, somewhat disavowing the radicals he needed for the nomination and instead offering an olive branch to the moderates he needs in the general election, and avoided Obama's best attack, his lack of detail, with the knowledge that, this early in the game, he need not provide detail, only draw contrast, and he most certainly did that. This was a crucial win for Governor Romney, as the final two debates, a town hall format and a foreign policy focus, do not seem nearly as in his wheelhouse; particularly the penultimate, as Romney's ability to connect and resonate with the average American is widely lampooned and generally acknowledged to draw responses somewhere between "nonexistent" and "Roomba-like levels of affection." But those are concerns for a different day, and for now, the challenger has drawn first blood.