Originally published in the Washington Times
President Obama's inexplicable silence in the first debate has led to a large bump for Mitt Romney -- now slightly ahead according to the Pew poll -- and the game-changer Democrats were convinced would not happen. The Saturday Night Live parodies were predictable--Obama mute against Romney's assertions, Obama becoming the Eastwood empty chair. For all my love of the President, it was bad, really bad.
Obama at the 3rd debate
My wife and I happened to stay at the Westin Lake Las Vegas around Obama's three-night debate prep stay. We were organizing an event in neighboring Las Vegas and wanted the away-from-it lake and mountain scenery the hotel offered, so we stayed there before and after our event.
We could not resist asking hotel staffers what they thought of the President. "Very nice guy," said hotel security, who said yes he took photos with him. Without my prompting, he added, "We relaxed him too much." Another hotel staffer, a bellman, said, again with no prompting, "We hope it wasn't the hotel's fault." That's how obvious the poor performance was.
Looking out the windows at the soothing mountains and lakes and playing touch football (which he did) on the lawn may have been part of the ensuing too-low-key presentation, but there was another huge reason: Obama was accompanied by mock-debater Sen. Jon Kerry. Kerry is brilliant on issues but renowned for long, long sentences that America couldn't figure out when he ran for president and still can't. This is not the right person to train Obama on how to throw a landing punch. In their book Game Change, John Heilman and Mark Halperin describe perceptions that Kerry has "a passivity, a weakness, an inability to wield the blade in self defense, let alone pounce at the right moment to carve up an opponent." The President's performance seems to prove this description accurate--Obama learned well.
If Obama wanted to learn how to win a debate, not just expound policy, he needed someone like James Carville, Paul Begala, as his debate stand-in opponent, not Kerry. If he preferred to practice against an elected official, he could have gone against Governor Brian Schweitzer of Montana, who wowed the last two Democratic conventions with punchy, pithy points.
President Obama let Romney get away with everything. He should have countered "trickle down government" with "Trickle-down economics hasn't worked since Hoover" (and should actually have used something like that first before Romney stole the "trickle down" line and said "government").
When Romney compared the $5 Trillion tax cuts assertion to "my five boys saying something that's not always true but just keep repeating it and ultimately hoping I'll believe it," it was a perfect opening for the President to retort, "But you have proposed a 20% across-the board tax cut. You can't have a family, or America, headed by a magician who miraculously pulls a rabbit out of a hat -- money does not grow on the trees of rich tax cuts. When you refuse to say where you will get the deductions and loopholes to pay for your cut, the American people recognize blue smoke and mirrors and want real answers, not a secret plan that can make them bankrupt. Mitt, how much would you cut deductions for home mortgages, or charities, or health benefits that Americans need and which help our economy--and don't say "tell you later'?"
On Social Security, it was inexcusable for the President to say "we think alike" instead of "Republicans have been pressing for privatization for years." As for the Medicare $716 billion cut, it was amazing the President did not point out that his cut was against insurance company overcharging and the money went to seniors' drug "doughnut hole" coverage and adding years to Medicare's solvency, whereas the Republicans voted to cut actual benefits.
If Obama had a few good lines like that, it would have been an even performance, given that Romney was masterful on rhetoric.
With two more debates, Obama can and will come back-- if he revamps his attack. Vice President Joe Biden's performance against GOP challenger Paul Ryan will not count anywhere near as much as Obama's own.
In 2000, Al Gore won the first debate by 15 points and lost the next two and the election (aside from Florida). Now, the jobs picture is improving, bin Laden is dead, and Americans overwhelmingly support leaving Iraq and Afghanistan. So President Obama and the Democrats still have some cards -- if they learn how to play them.
Robert Weiner is a national Democratic strategist and former Clinton White House spokesman.