By Bob Cesca: With the exception of a peculiar USA Today/Gallup poll, and as I've been predicting for the last week, the Romney bounce from the first debate has ended and is currently retreating (see Nate Silver's current forecast charts). Historical precedent has illustrated how this happens most of the time (the first 1992 debate is the sole exception), and so it's come as no surprise that it's happening again. Whenever a challenger bests an incumbent in the first debate, there's a bounce and then a dissipation of the bounce, and the incumbent generally wins.
Suffice to say, and with an appropriate degree of melodrama, the future Obama presidency isn't the only thing that hinges on what happens tonight. The president could either fuel Romney's descent while augmenting his own fortunes, or he could re-ignite Romney's prior momentum. If the latter happens, it could be very difficult to avoid either a (tragic) victory for Romney or a very, very long election night.
More importantly, if the president loses the second debate as badly as the first and, subsequently, isn't able to recover enough ground to win the election, it will be seen as a major loss for Keynesian economic policy, not to mention government intervention in health care, Wall Street regulation, student loans, climate, energy and so much more. In spite of his record of successes, the president will likely be viewed as a failure -- for reasons that confound logic. After all, if the president loses, he will have ended his presidency with a deficit that's hundreds of billions of dollars lower than when he took office, he will have saved senior citizens $4 billion in health care costs, he will have extended the solvency of Medicare to 2024, he will have rescued the economy from a global financial crisis, he will have created 5 million jobs in the wake of that crisis, he will have rescued and reinvigorated the American auto industry, he will have cut unemployment and he will have presided over a near-doubling of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Worse yet, all of the legislation that made these successes possible will be repealed by Mitt Romney.
Furthermore, the effort to eradicate the Reaganomics virus that's infected our politics for more than 30 years will be stopped cold. It isn't often discussed among hipster liberals who myopically see Obama as a centrist or even a moderate Republican, but for the first time in more than a generation, the president has made repeated cases for the positive role of government. Gradually throughout his first term, the president has worked this pitch for the restoration of government as a force for good into major addresses, many of which were prime time joint session addresses to Congress. Within this pitch, the president has made effective cases against tax cuts for the super-rich as well cases against de-regulatory policies that have resulted in health insurance abuses, corporate out-sourcing and the nefarious Wall Street noodling that sparked the Great Recession. It's a far cry from the "era of big government is over" talk from Bill Clinton or the "government is the problem" mantra from Ronald Reagan.
With an Obama loss, it's very unlikely another Democrat in the near future will be able to successfully pick up the same goals and be victorious while doing so. And there's always a chance that the recovery will continue into a Romney presidency -- at least for a while -- and the conventional wisdom would divorce such a success from the policies that made it happen. Romney would get the credit. For example, the CBO projects that 12 million jobs will be created in the next four years. Romney will take credit for that -- in fact, he already is by saying that he'll create 12 million jobs. Those jobs will be created anyway due to the fact that the economy was pulled back from the brink and continues to recover. Essentially, the failed supply-side, trickle-down, de-regulatory, anti-government economic plan being pitched by Mitt Romney will be unfairly and inaccurately viewed as a successful one.
And perhaps the most devastating outcome: the Supreme Court will become solidly conservative for another generation. It'll be a tragic turn events for women, campaign finance, net neutrality and so forth. The consequences of Romney appointing a sixth or seventh conservative justice on the Bench are almost too harrowing to imagine.
What makes me especially nervous about tonight's debate is the traditional press and its pathological desire to dissolve the colossally momentous stakes of this election into matters of style or weird observations. In doing so, they've invariably given viewers permission to vote according to superficial tics or faux pas rather than a combination of overall comportment and substance.
Too often, the traditional press markets in lethally awful observations like, "Romney made a strong case for [blank]," or, "Ryan's most effective moment was when he talked about the middle class." No attention is ever paid to the content of what they said and whether it's accurate or true. Okay, Ryan was really effective when he -- what? -- lied to the middle class about Romney's plan for the middle class? Ergo, history is decided based on whether Joe Biden smiled too much or whether Mitt Romney could deliver his lies with enough rehearsed authenticity to trick the viewing audience.
The upshot is this: President Obama needs to bring it tonight. Nothing can be left to chance. He needs to be assertive, quick on his feet and armed with not only various expert debunkings of Romney's predictably ample lie geyser, but also with the facts regarding his own record. By the way, he needs to do a lot of bragging about that record. Sell it. At the same time, he needs to compassionately answer audience questions in a way that both relates to their concerns but also conveys how his policies have helped them -- or, at least, people like them. His answers need to be internalized and effortless.
If he can do this, he'll have wiped out Romney's surge and made a seriously huge stride towards victoy next month. And if he fails, well... he can't fail.
No pressure, though.