Now we’ll see how much debates really matter. Often they don’t matter much. But the presidential debate Wednesday night might matter a great deal, not because of what the candidates said, but what the debate told us about who the candidates really are.
Barack Obama was revealed to be the empty suit with a great gift of gab and a talent only for appealing to the nation’s guilty conscience. Some of us recognized the empty suit four years ago. Like all great salesmen, he can charm prospective customers when he tries, but without a teleprompter he’s hopelessly lost at sea. On Wednesday night, he forgot whether he was selling rubbing alcohol or ladies’ corsets, and it showed.
Like all presidents, he’s accustomed to watching everybody swoon when he steps into the room, and the only tune on his iPod is “Hail to the Chief,” which he plays often. When Mitt Romney confronted him with something less than a genuflection, the president was rattled for the rest of the evening. Life outside a bubble is tough, particularly for a president.
Mitt Romney, to our considerable surprise, has a gift for talking to the common man. He may be one of us, after all. This is particularly important in an age when everybody wants the president to feel his pain and the first lady to come over with a green-bean casserole. He arrived with a game plan and kept to it. He used the word “jobs” more than 30 times. It became a mantra. He was confident, respectful, and looked to be the man in charge of the evening. He showed unexpected flashes of humor. Once, mildly rebuking the president for endlessly repeating a canard about a tax cut, he recalled that as the father of five boys he was accustomed to hearing something repeated over and over in hopes that repetition would make it so.
But will it matter? Several presidential candidates have survived bad debate nights and gone on to win election. Ronald Reagan, remembered as the original Great Communicator, wandered from first base to center field and into the dugouts in his first debate with Walter Mondale in 1984, and then won 49 states, giving Minnesota to the native son only as a gentleman’s gimme. George Bush the elder lost a debate to Michael Dukakis before clobbering him in 1988, and George the son lost his debate with John Kerry in 2004 and subsequently torpedoed the swift boat in November. ...
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