Some of the newspaper commentators more closely represented the debate that I watched. Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times noted that "Mr. Romney managed, despite a dry throat and some rapid blinking, to keep a choirboy smile pasted on his face while Mr. Obama spoke.
"Mr. Obama was quicker to drop his bonhomie and adopt the look of a long-suffering headmaster enduring the excuses of a bright student he is going to expel."
The Times also did a solid job of assessing the claims and counter-claims from the two rivals. And the Times' lead editorial took Romney to task for his mendacity and Obama to task for not holding the Republican accountable.
But how to explain the behavior of the TV commentators, especially those on MSNBC, whose instant "spin" on behalf of Romney surely influenced the opinions of millions of Americans in their own assessments of who won?
Though MSNBC has done a relatively good job of creating some balance in a cable TV environment that Fox News has tilted sharply to the right, its hosts are under corporate pressure to present themselves as neutral newscasters in situations like Wednesday's debate. (Remember the trouble that Keith Olbermann encountered.)
So, aspiring careerists like Rachel Maddow can be expected to demur in a situation like Wednesday night. After all, for her there are grand career opportunities, like a regular gig on NBC's "Meet the Press" or possibly even replacing David Gregory as the host, a big step indeed.
So she immediately turned to Steve Schmidt, who did what you would expect a Republican political operative to do in such a case. He spun the outcome for Romney and did so with such confidence that he seemed to influence the remarks of MSNBC show anchors, Chris Hayes and Chris Matthews, who promptly fell in line.
For his part, Ed Schultz sounded more like a disgruntled lefty who wanted Obama to be the perfect gladiator mercilessly chopping Romney to pieces and then asking the American TV audience, "are you not entertained?"
But that approach would have opened Obama to another line of attack, the angry black man, a balancing act that Obama instinctively senses but that white liberals don't seem to get. The only MSNBC anchor cutting through the "Romney won" spin was Sharpton.
While it's true that Obama could have been tougher in demanding more time from Lehrer and in going after his rival, the President did resist Lehrer's curious eagerness to impose time limits on Obama but not Romney.
Obama also made the key point about how Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, keep evading specifics on their various plans. Indeed, that was my primary takeaway from the debate, that a shifty and shifting Romney won't tell the American people what he actually intends to do.
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