All News & Blogs
Romney's effective indictment of Obama's record managed something difficult and important. It simultaneously steadied the confidence of Republicans in their own candidate while allowing Romney to adopt a more moderate, bipartisan tone on taxes, education, and entitlements. This is politics successfully conducted at a high degree of difficulty.
Romney did not announce or emphasize unexpected policy--which is generally not the purpose of debates. But his summaries of existing approaches were crisp and comprehensive. He not only pronounced, he explained. And he employed vignettes like political chess moves--a little hopelessness in Missouri, a little despair in Wisconsin, a little disillusionment in New Hampshire.
Romney constantly and seamlessly humanized his arguments. He even outlined a philosophy of government that includes compassion for the needy--probably a fragment of his prepared response to the 47 percent challenge that never came. If women voters in battleground states were watching, they didn't see the stereotype they expected.
Romney prepared for the debate intensely, and it showed--which means it didn't show. He had not only practiced his material but internalized and mastered it, leaving a composite impression of ease and authenticity. He seemed eager to make the points he was primed to make--pleased to be finally answering months of accumulated attack ads.
Obama had not debated in years, and it also showed. He is a political orchid, thriving best in a hot, wet atmosphere of praise. Presented with serious, sustained criticism, he first seemed puzzled that his idiom wasn't working properly. Then came the avalanche of tweeted adjectives: annoyed, grim, unhappy, disengaged, glaring, defensive.
For me, the low point came when he protested, "I'm going to make an important point here, Jim." Show, as they say, don't tell. Obama's words were instantly forgettable. But his performance will be remembered, studied, and mocked for its body language. He looked down. He looked away. It was the surrender of the averted gaze.
The best news for Romney is this: He rose to the most difficult moment. When the need was greatest, and the stage was largest, he was exceptional. It is one of the things that presidents do.
Michael Gerson is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.