Just by showing up energized, by hemming and hawing less often and by going after Mitt Romney more directly, President Barack Obama ensured himself a better showing than the disaster he endured in Denver two weeks ago.
But the narrow win Obama gained in the second presidential debate also owed something to Romney’s performance, which, though highly effective in stretches, also showcased more of his flaws, both as a debater and a candidate.
The first flaw was stylistic. Romney is very skillful at the on-stage slash and parry, but he has weak spots, and veterans of the long Republican primary slog remember two of them particularly well.
One is his tendency to argue pointlessly with the moderator and his opponents over the rules of order. The other is his habit of pressing his advantage too far, seeking a kind of alpha-male moment that can seem bullying instead of strong. (His attempt at a $10,000 bet with Rick Perry was the paradigmatic example.)
Romney gave in to both temptations this time around. The candidates each bickered with CNN’s Candy Crowley about turns and time allotments, but Romney went at it earlier and more often — sometimes justifiably, but never successfully. He also tried too hard to pre-empt the president’s increased aggression with aggression of his own, which doesn’t work well in a town-hall format, where the candidates are already circling one another like sharks. Invading your rival’s space can make you look hyped-up rather than presidential.
On substance, meanwhile, the studied vagueness of Romney’s domestic policy platform created more problems for him in the Washington debate than it did in Denver. Two weeks ago, Obama seemed taken by surprise when Romney didn’t just debate like the far-right caricature from the White House’s campaign ads.
This time the president was more prepared for his rival’s centrist-friendly defenses of his agenda and more adept at pointing out the holes in them. And because Romney’s proposals really do have significant gaps, the Republican nominee was repeatedly thrown back on the promise that he “knows how to create jobs,” which is more a rhetorical crutch than a compelling argument.
Where Romney actually has a more detailed proposal, as he does on immigration, his rebuttals were crisper and more convincing, and he also won several exchanges just by turning the conversation back to the economy’s performance under Obama. (He also had to deal with what the liberal pundit Jonathan Chait rightly described as a slate of “friendly questions from an audience that obviously leaned left.”)
Nor was the president any better this time at answering the question haunting his candidacy: Why would your second term be any different?
Indeed, had the debate focused on the economy alone, Romney might have emerged more bruised than last time but still victorious. But there was also a segue into foreign policy, where he seemed at once underinformed and overaggressive:
He did a poor job of explaining what exactly the Obama White House had done wrong (he barely mentioned the administration’s fixation on the offensive YouTube video), seemed ill-prepared for the president’s obvious, dudgeon-rich, I’m-the-commander-in-chief counterpunch, and then fell back on right-wing boilerplate about Obama’s supposed “apology tour” that can’t possibly resonate with swing voters.
Then again, it’s not clear that the Libya issue in particular, or foreign policy in general, really resonates with swing voters, either. This is probably Romney’s best hope coming out of this debate: That he was weakest on style points and on issues that voters don’t particularly care about, and that by hammering away at the president’s record and projecting an air of economic competence, he did himself more good than harm.
The snap polls, dubious though they may be, provide some support for this pro-Romney read on Tuesday night’s proceedings. CNN’s poll shows a modest Obama victory: Forty-six percent rated the president the winner, versus 39 percent for Romney. But even in a debate that he lost overall, the poll still showed Romney edging the president on the crucial questions of who would better handle the economy, taxes and health care.
For Obama and his supporters, meanwhile, the hope has to be that Romney’s post-Denver bounce was just that: A temporary surge that could be blunted and reversed by simply reasserting the White House’s narrative — that Romney is an out-of-touch plutocrat and ideological extremist, whereas Obama is a champion of the middle class — much more effectively and eloquently than the president did in the first debate.
The question now is whether that kind of straightforward reassertion is all Obama needed, or whether the public’s post-Denver willingness to consider Romney anew shifted the dynamics of the race in a way that a closely fought debate can’t quite reverse. That’s something that no snap survey or poll can tell us. The proof will be in the Nov. 6 election.