Two esteemed observers of U.S. politics will provide live assessments of the four presidential and vice-presidential debates for The Globe and Mail. The author, journalist and speechwriter John O’Sullivan is a writer and editor-at-large of the conservative magazine the National Review. The Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist David Shribman writes for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he is executive editor.
Two things happened in the first presidential debate: Mitt Romney established his fitness to be president and Barack Obama lost his aura as a statesman. That meant both men faced very different tasks last night.
Mr. Romney had to demonstrate that his first performance was not a freak success, achieved because the other fellow hadn’t really shown up. He achieved that and more last night. He was almost never without a knowledgeable and fluent answer to the most difficult questions. (The few exceptions are dealt with below.) He demonstrated a natural authority. He committed no gaffes. He is clearly a potential president who would not be flummoxed on arriving in the Oval Office.
Mr. Obama had to demonstrate that he was not an empty chair but a competent and experienced politician. He could hardly regain the almost godlike stature that he enjoyed with Democrats and most of the mainstream media until the first debate. Such things are irrecoverable: as Browning wrote, “Never glad confident morning again.” But he could re-establish himself as a bold debater and a formidable opponent – and he did that and more last night.
Both men are therefore seen as potential presidents and the race is still on and still uncertain.
Did either win last night, either outright or on points? The debate was sufficiently close that partisans on both sides can claim victory with some plausibility. They will therefore do so. But we won’t know for certain until later this week because, as in the vice-presidential debate, some of the answers given last night are likely to return to bite their givers on the bottom.
My own take is as follows: I gave the first half of the debate to Mr. Romney pretty consistently. He never gave a poor answer and his best replies were brilliant – as, for instance, his answer to a cleverly hostile question on equal pay for women. Also, if you went by appearance and expression – I turned down the sound for a few moments to try checking this – Mr. Romney seemed more comfortable and assured, Mr. Obama more edgy and at times nervous.
In the second half, however, Mr. Romney stumbled. He started out well with an answer on immigration, but he didn’t know his own case well. My suspicion is that he was caught between his policy advisers urging no amnesty for illegals and his political consultants telling him that Latino voters wanted one. In any event, when challenged by Mr. Obama (pretty weakly, as it happens), he couldn’t quite remember the model answer: he would protect the jobs of low-paid Americans from illegal competition.
It got worse on Libya. Though presented with an open goal when the president said he had called the attack in Benghazi a terrorist one from the first, Mr. Romney passed the ball to the wing. He might have said: “If so, why did the president send out his UN Ambassador to say that it began as a spontaneous protest at a YouTube video about Mohammed.” That would have been game, set, and match. Instead, he denied that the president had ever called Benghazi a terrorist act – and was instantly corrected by the moderator to loud applause.
Now, though Candy Crowley was not quite accurate in her correction, President Obama won the point last night. As with Joe Biden’s comments on the same topic, however, this question is likely to continue to be debated in the media – and to return next week in the final debate and perhaps to bite the president on the bottom quite severely.
That said, as Mr. Romney faltered, the president gained in confidence and fluency across the range of issues. His problem was a different one: what is sometimes called, in another context, the burden of office. Throughout the debate, whether he was faltering or surging, President Obama was repeatedly hurt by Mr. Romney’s citing the broad economic failures of his administration. The president’s best reply to this – and not an unreasonable one – is that the economy would have done far worse under different policies. But that never sounds very persuasive. And when someone asked a question that the president must have quietly cheered about how Mr. Romney could distinguish himself from president George W. Bush and his record, Mr. Romney hit that particular question out of the park.
By the end of the debate, who had won? If you were to score things question by question, Mr. Romney would probably be the winner. If you were to judge the verdict by how they both looked at the end, it would probably be a draw. If you read the polls, that also seems like a draw. This week that seems like a gain for the president; two weeks ago it would have been a clear loss. The final debate may well produce a verdict in favour of one candidate or the other – but it will probably be a win on points rather than a knockout.
We’ll have to wait for election night to get a clear winner.
John O’Sullivan is a British-born writer on American politics who lives in Decatur, Alabama. He is editor-at large of the National Review and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.