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WASHINGTON--No mystery about the trajectory of this race. It was static for months as President Obama held a marginal lead. Then came the conventions. The Republicans squandered Tampa; the Democrats got a 3- to 4-point bounce out of Charlotte.
And kept it. Until the first debate. In 90 minutes, Mitt Romney wiped out the bump--and maybe more.
Democrats are shellshocked and left searching for excuses. Start with scapegoats: the hapless John Kerry, Obama's sparring partner in the practice debates, for going too soft on the boss; then the debate moderator for not exerting enough control.
The Obama campaign's plea that the commander in chief could find no shelter under Jim Lehrer's desk did not exactly bolster Obama's standing. Moreover, the moderator's job is not to control the flow of argument, but to simply enforce an even time split.
Lehrer did. In fact, Obama took more time than Romney--4 minutes more--while actually speaking 500 fewer words. Romney knew what he thought and said it. Obama kept looking around hoping for the words to come to him. They didn't.
After the scapegoats came the excuses.
1. Obama had a bad night. He was off his game.
Nonsense. This is Obama's game. Great at delivering telepromptered addresses to adoring Germans and swooning students. But he's not very good on his feet.
His problem is that he doesn't think so. He not only believes his own press, he believes his own mythology. He actually said (in 2007): "I think that I'm a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I'm a better political director than my political director."
Obama is a man of considerable intelligence. But he's not half as transcendently smart as he thinks he is.
He needs a servant in his chariot reminding him that he's not an immortal. Of course, after the debate the entire Democratic Party told him he's a dud. Wrong again. He's neither lord nor commoner. He's just an above-average politician who needs a very good night
2. He was weighed down by the burdens of office.
Ah yes, the burdens of office. Like going on "The View" while meeting with not a single foreign leader at the U.N. Like flying to a Vegas campaign rally the day after a U.S. consulate is sacked and the ambassador murdered. Like rushing off to New York for a night with Jay-Z and Beyonce.
Rocky Mountain altitude is a better excuse than that. (Thank you, Al Gore.)
Stephanie Cutter and David Axelrod both said (amazing coincidence) that Romney won on "style points."
So, the most charismatic politician since Pierre Elliot Trudeau was beaten by an android--on style? I concede that Obama's reaction shots were awful. But he lost on radio too. And in print. Read the transcript. This wasn't about appearances. Romney didn't win on style. He won on an avalanche of substance, on a complete takedown of six months of Obama portraying Romney as enemy of the middle class, friend and footman of the rich.
That was the heart of the Obama campaign. After all, with crushing debt, chronically high unemployment, and the worst economic recovery since World War II, Obama can't run on stewardship. Nor on the future. He has no serious agenda. Nothing on entitlements, nothing on tax reform, nothing on debt, nothing on the fiscal cliff.
So when Romney completely deflated that six-month "kill Romney" strategy--by looking reasonable, responsible, authoritative in demonstrating how his policies would help the middle class by stimulating economic growth--what did Obama have left?
Big Bird. The stupidest ad in memory. Has any president ever run an ad so small and trivial? After an unprecedented shellacking in a debate about very large issues, this is his response?
The Middle East is ablaze, the country drowning in debt, the fiscal cliff looming--and Obama's great pitch is that only he can save the $130 million enterprise that is the Sesame Workshop?
An inspiring second-term agenda: subsidies for Big Bird and free contraceptives for Sandra Fluke.
Obama has two debates to come up with something better. If he can't, he will double down on his "Romney the menace" line. It might still work. But a word of advice: Your administration having prevaricated unceasingly--and scandalously--about the massacre in Benghazi, I'd be cautious about the "he's a liar" line of attack.
Charles Krauthammer is a columnist