Observers on both the right and the left were surprised at the Mitt Romney that showed up at the debate in Florida last night. Whereas President Obama came primed for a fight, and missed few opportunities to take a swing at the challenger, Romney displayed a kind of bemused aloofness. It seemed that when he wasn’t passing on obvious chances to land a policy haymaker on the President, he was agreeing with Obama’s policies.
And in doing so, he may well have sealed the election.
Many conservatives, I’m sure, were choking with frustration at this performance. “Benghazi! Benghazi! Make him account for his twisted story line!” they might well have shouted at their televisions. Meanwhile, liberals were crowing that the sleepwalking debater that showed up in Obama’s clothing at the first debate was on stage in Republican red at the last one.
Indeed, many of the instant polls gave the debate to Obama, who without question scored more debate points. But Romney had bigger fish to fry. Since before the convention, his goal has been to persuade the ex-Obamanauts – that portion of the electorate between the 52% who voted for Obama in 2008 and the 47% who now give him the nod in polls – that he, Romney, is a worthy alternative. He made huge headway toward that objective in the first debate; since then he has been polling 20%+ leads on the question of who is most capable of solving the country’s economic problems. Last night he needed to close the deal by portraying himself as a plausible leader on the world stage. In short, his goal was to be presidential.
This race was never going to be decided on foreign policy; and with Romney well ahead on the key domestic issue, he needed no more than a draw on foreign policy, so as to take that off the table as a possible disqualifier. In fact, he showed himself to be knowledgeable about every topic that came up, with well-articulated positions – even if many of them were virtually identical to the President’s. Many would have found it easy to see him in the big chair.
President Obama, for his part, has devoted the bulk of his campaign to constructing an image of Romney as unacceptable. Ironically, he prefaced this tactic in his speech accepting the Democratic nomination in 2008, speaking of the Republicans: “If you don’t have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from. You make a big election about small things.”
Precisely. And so we had Romney as out-sourcer-in-chief; heartless capitalist plutocrat; tax dodger; out of touch with normal folks; not one of us. And as to foreign policy, Romney was described as “reckless and irresponsible”; warmonger; erratic. Team Obama spent tens of millions of dollars constructing that mosaic while the GOP was engaged in the circular firing squad known as the primary contest.
The problem is, these characterizations were so over-the-top that they were demolished by Romney’s appearance before the debate cameras, when he came across as reasonable, intelligent, energized, and, well, likable. Last night, Obama tried repeatedly to pin the reckless and irresponsible tag on him, and it just didn’t mesh with the confident, capable man people saw sitting at the table.
It’s hard to tell if this frustrated Obama, or if the President’s increasingly snarky attitude reflected a genuine antipathy toward Romney, but he indulged in some very un-presidential sarcasm and condescension (“we have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them”). Romney, with his eyes on the prize, showed impressive discipline in not rising to the bait, and keeping his focus on the big picture. Romney was more presidential than the President last night.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized there was something bigger going on, and if I’m right it reflects extremely well on Romney as a battlefield strategist. By declining to engage in a verbal knife fight with Obama, he was saying to the voters watching:
“Aren’t you tired of all this negativity and partisanship? I sure am.”
And so, while Barack Obama came with insults and attacks, Romney sat serene and confident, with a little half-smile on his face that seemed to say, “you aren’t laying a glove on me.” He even, to prove his point, complimented Obama on the mission to kill Osama bin Laden – a totally gratuitous nod to the President’s principle foreign policy achievement that simultaneously neutralized much of its effect.
In refraining from attacking Obama even on the most obvious issues, in declining to interrupt and counter Obama’s points, Romney was showing voters something they had not seen in ages, something many may have forgotten existed: a dignified policy debate.
Seen in this light, Obama’s attacks – even when unanswered – make Romney’s case for him. Obama is the one engaging in negativity, in insults and schoolyard-quality taunts; he may have scored some debate points, but he ended up diminishing himself by contrast with the challenger.
Romney drove the point home in his closing statement: “America’s going to come back, and for that to happen, we’re going to have to have a president who can work across the aisle. I was in a state where my legislature was 87 percent Democrat. I learned how to get along on the other side of the aisle. We’ve got to do that in Washington. Washington is broken. I know what it takes to get this country back, and will work with good Democrats and good Republicans to do that.” Music to an undecided voter’s ears.
The brilliance of this is that Romney can expect President Obama to continue making his case for him in the remaining weeks before the election. The President’s whole campaign is predicated on disqualifying Romney, and his camp gave indication that they would be doubling down on their earlier characterizations – bringing back Bain Capital, Cayman Islands bank accounts, the tax returns, all the rest. As Obama himself said, “small things.”
So let the President keep on the negative path. Romney has shown the ex-Obamanauts he’s qualified for the job and can be trusted to do it. In these last two weeks he can show them also the tantalizing prospect of a return of dignity to the White House.