Return to story
THOUGH political debates are invariably likened to boxing matches, the highest level of the "sport" has seen just two knockouts--or at least knockdowns--since Kennedy and Nixon squared off in 1960. One was Ronald Reagan's debilitating "There you go again" to Jimmy Carter in 1980; the other occurred when Lloyd Bentsen told Dan Quayle in 1988, "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy"--leaving the Hoosier VP candidate looking like Bambi caught in the high beams of a Mack truck.
Neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney ate a Carter-Quayle haymaker during the first presidential debate Wednesday in Denver. But the contest wasn't a draw, either. Mr. Romney, after a run of bad news, confident and well-prepped, came out swinging. He largely had his way with the president, who left the arena in need of an ice bag. (Obama advocate Chris Matthews of MSNBC: "What was he doing?")
Television is a medium of image, and the incumbent projected a surprisingly weak one, seldom taking the fight to Mr. Romney. The Republican's criticisms of the president's domestic policies regarding, say, chronic unemployment and national indebtedness were sharp; Mr. Obama's counterpunching, flaccid. The challenger was a happy warrior; the champion looked ill at ease. And he lacked one advantage of a real pug: He couldn't go to his stool every three minutes and get remedial instructions from his corner. The result? Essentially a 90-minute leather shampoo.
Because no one really gets disqualified in a political debate, Mr. Romney also got away with some unpunished fouls of a factual nature. For example, he alleged that Obamacare "puts in place an unelected board"--nee: "death panel"--"that's going to tell people, ultimately, what kind of treatments they can have." In reality, that board is barred from making such decisions. Also, Mr. Romney's assertion that he will give especially high-income Americans a $5 trillion tax cut without increasing the deficit or taking it out of the hide of the middle class also befuddles economists, and even gives witch doctors pause.
But Mr. Romney had the energy, and he landed clean and sometimes clever punches, as when he used an Obama anecdote about cost-cutting at the Cleveland Clinic as evidence that a properly motivated private sector could do better than "trickle-down government" to manage health costs.
Why was the president so often outmaneuvered? Perhaps because he has a day job with manifold and great demands, unlike Mr. Romney, whose waking hours are entirely devoted to his candidacy. Also, Mr. Romney knows his way around the ring, having recently emerged from 20 GOP primary debates. Mr. Obama hasn't faced a forensic challenger since John McCain four years ago. The ring rust showed.
The elementary combination punch in boxing is "the old one-two"--and it's the "two" that does the real damage. A "two" may be awaiting the president far from the debating stage. In fact, it may come this morning in the form of the September unemployment figures.
Last month's jobless numbers were a letdown: only 96,000 jobs created in a nation where 23 million are officially without work and an unemployment rate that had fallen to 8.1 percent only because 368,000 despairing Americans had stopped looking for work. If this morning's figures look like that, or are even worse, the president's dismal debate performance will seem almost a love tap by comparison.
But here's the hopeful news for Mr. Obama--and the dangerous tidings for Mr. Romney: There are two more presidential debates to go. It is almost inconceivable that the president will answer the bell for those as flat-footed as Wednesday night. He will, as they say in the fight game, be punching with bad intentions. Expect to hear about Mr. Romney's horrendous 47 percent remark, his frequent flip-flops, the human collateral damage of his Bain Capital activities, and more.
Most presidential debates are forgettable. A hypnotist would be required to extract memories of the 2008 Obama-McCain clashes from the average American's brain. On Wednesday night, however, there was real action and the promise of more to come. At the end of it all, Americans should have a clearer idea about who can better lead this nation for the next four years.
They will arrive at what determines the outcome of most boxing matches: a decision.