Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. (Photo credit: mittromney.com)
In the presidential debate that I watched on Wednesday night, Republican challenger Mitt Romney was shiftier than Dick Nixon in 1960 and less coherent than George W. Bush in 2000, but the TV pundits, including on MSNBC, overwhelmingly declared him the winner.
When I tried to follow Romney's logic, I couldn't. Somehow the federal government was supposed to rein in rising health care costs but his only idea for doing so was to let the free-market work when it is clear that -- whatever the shortcomings of "Obamacare" -- the old model of health insurance was broken.
Romney treated any reference to his 20 percent across-the-board tax cut costing $5 trillion over a decade as a lie, likening the President to his "five boys ... saying something that's not always true but just keep on repeating it." After all, Romney has declared that his plan would be revenue-neutral. But he continued his pattern of refusing to specify how he would make it so.
In the debate that I saw, Romney seemed to be on the defensive, in large part, due to the incoherence and incompleteness of his arguments. And that reflected itself in his body language. He shifted nervously, blinked rapidly and displayed a forced smile. It looked like he was about to tear up during his closing remarks.
I saw a man struggling at the end of his rope. By contrast, Obama looked, well, presidential. He was never flustered and mounted vigorous defenses of his policies, offering details about what he had done and what he would do. Yet, he didn't sound overly defensive or whiny, a big risk in such a setting.
One could fault Obama for not being more aggressive with host Jim Lehrer, who curiously seemed determined to stop the President from exceeding his time limit while letting Romney ramble on. But that is more a criticism of Lehrer, who behaved like PBS types often do -- they go weak in the knees when a Republican talks about slashing the subsidy for public broadcasting, as Romney pointedly did.
So, I came away from watching the 90-minute debate thinking that Romney had come as close to melting down in front of a huge national audience as anyone I have ever seen in my half century of watching presidential debates. Pundits often fall back on the cliche that "no one landed a knock-out punch," but this was as close to having one candidate lying on the mat as I have ever seen, although it was mostly Romney doing the damage to himself.
Yet, immediately after the debate -- even on liberal-leaning MSNBC -- Republican commentators were given the floor and allowed to set the tone of the meeting. On MSNBC, Rachel Maddow deferred to GOP campaign strategist Steve Schmidt, who gushed over Romney's performance. The verdict was "Romney won."
Everyone on the set except for Al Sharpton fell in line. Ed Schultz blasted Obama for not lashing out at Romney and especially for not blasting Romney's portrayal of 47 percent of the U.S. population as irresponsible moochers.
For the past several days, pretty much every pundit I watched had predicted that the "the 47 percent" comment would be the centerpiece of the debate, but I never thought that was likely, having watched Lehrer handle other debates. He almost never goes for the "gotcha" question, favoring bland policy discussions.
Without Lehrer introducing the remark, it would have been difficult and clumsy for Obama to shoehorn the comment in. Frankly, it would have elicited groans from many Americans as an overreach. But the pundits had decided that it had to be at the heart of the debate, so they blamed the President when it wasn't.
What was particularly startling about the MSNBC commentary was its lack of substance -- except for Sharpton, who zeroed in on the discrepancies between Romney's months of campaign statements as a "severely conservative" ex-governor of Massachusetts and his reinvention of himself as a caring fellow on Wednesday.
Yet, even on style, it was amazing to me that the pundits were favoring Romney, who looked more ill at ease than Nixon did in his infamous 1960 debate debacle with Kennedy and goofier than Bush in 2000, who was so unserious that he elicited a famous "sigh" from Al Gore. Romney wasn't as much on the offensive all night as he was testy. He talked fast, lacked specifics and nagged Lehrer about getting more time.
If Romney were a car salesman, he would be the one urging me to overlook the car's lousy mileage and poor repair record and begging me to buy his vehicle so he could meet his quota and not get in trouble with the boss. On Wednesday night, I was a bit worried that he would dissolve into tears during his closing remarks.
His shaky behavior and watery eyes brought to mind Ann Romney's comment last Thursday that her "biggest concern" about her husband getting elected president "would just be for his mental well-being." In a TV interview in Nevada, Romney's wife pronounced him competent and qualified but worried about "the emotional part of it" for her husband.
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