The conventional wisdom, which crystallized within hours of the first debate, was that Obama had a dreadful performance, and that was the source of the Romney win.
I think that's wrong. I believe that Obama was fairly typical Obama. He is never particularly good when he doesn't have a teleprompter, and much of his appeal four years ago was a result of vacuous rhetoric and the ability of people to project on him the post-racial President of a post-racial America that they want to see.
So the issue in Denver was not Obama - it was Romney. Romney was excellent, demonstrating both a likeable persona and a detailed grasp of the issues. The problem for Obama in Denver was not that he wasn't Presidential - it was that Romney was.
All of the conditions on the ground - high unemployment, low job growth, almost non-existent economic growth, exploding deficits and debt, a wildly unpopular health care bill, the appearance of a collapse of diplomacy in the middle east, including the recent murder of a US Ambassador on US sovereign soil, and the accompanying lies and deception - make this a very bad environment for an incumbent running for re-election. And you only have to look at the campaign that Obama has run to see that. He has no accomplishments to run on, and he recognizes that. (He does have accomplishments, as both the stimulus and Obamacare are significant accomplishments, but they're also both losing issues, so he can't run on them.) So the entirety of his election campaign has been focused on Mitt Romney. "Mitt's mean to dogs, he's going to take money from the poor and give it to the rich, he lays off people and gives cancer to their wives, he doesn't pay any taxes
," yadda, yadda, yadda. No pro-Obama, just anti-Mitt. The strategy works as long as the challenger is never able to pierce the caricature. It works as long as the incumbent can maintain the fiction that it's his election, and he's in control of it. It works as long as you can maintain the air of inevitability and invincibility.
That air was shattered in Denver. That's why the conventional wisdom is that Obama had a horrible night (he did) and that it was Obama's performance that caused it (it wasn't).
That conventional wisdom, that Obama performed poorly, leads directly to the conventional wisdom going into tonight's debate, that Obama needs to be much better.
That's wrong, too.
Here's the reason that the Democrats are starting to reek of desperation: it does not matter, in the slightest, what Barack Obama does tonight. It's irrelevant. This election is, as it was always bound to be, a referendum on the first term Presidency of Barack H. Obama. With no suitable alternative, the incumbent will be re-elected. If a suitable alternative is discovered, the election hinges on the facts.
And the facts are very bad for President Obama.
What happened two weeks ago in Denver was that Mitt Romney demonstrated to the American people that he is a suitable alternative. So tonight's debate is not about Obama - it's about Romney, again. It does not matter what Obama does. He cannot change the trajectory of the race. Oh, he'll try. And the media will do all it can to assist him. (You know that the "Barack Obama, The Comeback Kid" headlines are already written and set for the morning editions.)
But he can't. Only Romney can change it, with some massive screw up, something that renders him unfit in the eyes of the soft supporters and undecided middle. He could commit some glaring gaffe that's suitable for wall-to-wall obsession for the next week on the part of the press. Absent that, though, the preference cascade continues.
Mitt Romney could do something to lose the election tonight. But Barack Obama cannot do anything to win it.
Labels: Campaign 2012, debate, Mitt Romney, obama