By Chez Pazienza: I'll be honest: I wasn't able to watch last night's debate as it happened. I was in San Francisco on business and happened to be having dinner at the time, thankfully at a place at least a couple of steps up in class from the local Hooters or wherever else you might find a TV over a bar. What was interesting, though, was following the various blows and deflections as they happened on Twitter. Yeah, I give the Twitter noise machine a lot of crap, but I'll never deny that there's nothing like it when it comes to disseminating and receiving information as it happens. I'd say that it's just like being there, but of course it's not; it's more like one of those movies where somebody pours water on an invisible man and you can see the outline of him as well as his basic features, but the details just aren't there and he remains pretty much transparent. Still, it's oddly exhilarating, to say nothing of hallucinatory, watching the reaction to something pour in at a rate of a few dozen thoughts per second without being able to actually see what that something is.
By the time I got to my hotel and watched the debate from start to finish on my laptop, I already had a pretty good idea what had taken place; all the visuals did, really, was fill in the blanks. I admit, however, that it was definitely something to see Barack Obama truly taking it to Mitt Romney, the play-by-play having been informative but the blood red carnage left all over that stage at Hofstra being infinitely more satisfying.
I don't need to tell you that Obama knocked it out of the park last night. He did -- no doubt about it. Whether you're a supporter of his or not, it would be impossible to deny that he came roaring back from the coma he was in two weeks ago, the listless performance that it was also impossible to deny regardless of where your loyalties lie. Obama was clear, confident and combative and while Romney no doubt expected a tougher fight this time around, he still looked like he'd been caught somewhat off-guard by just how aggressive, passionate and prepared the president was. It was, without a doubt, Obama's best debate performance ever -- delivered just when he needed it most. Not only should it nicely follow up Biden's even more pugnacious appearance last week and stop the hemorrhaging that had left Obama supporters in a state of panic -- it may very well jolt the entire campaign back into a place of relative comfort in the polls.
I've talked a lot about the media narrative lately and the importance of it when it comes to the 2012 presidential election and in that regard, I think Obama's the clear winner. Between his willingness to assert himself and defend his own record, as well as his vision for the country moving forward, and Romney's epic fuck-up on Libya which created what may very well be one of those debate moments that becomes historic -- Obama slyly chiding Romney to "please proceed" when he knew full well that he was about to walk into a bear trap was Hollywood stuff -- there's no doubt that the president will enjoy full command of the narrative for the next week, at least.
Contrasting that was Romney, who wasn't by any means drubbed out of town but who was sufficiently manhandled on more than one occasion and who many times seemed flustered and pissy, culminating both in his aforementioned presumed "gotcha" moment on Libya going sideways in a matter of seconds, thanks both to Obama and a brilliant Candy Crowley, and his inexplicable decision to hand Obama the 47% cudgel the president could use to beat him over the head in the closing minutes. The right is already saying their guy won and the snap polls show a win by Obama but not a blowout; Romney in my mind got his ass handed to him, but I know that not everyone will see it that way, depending on his or her political biases.
On that subject there was my favorite post-debate quote of the night, one of those statements that's so awe-inspiringly hypocritical it leaves you stunned that there are still new depths of bullshit to plumb in American politics. After the whole thing was over, Romney campaign manager Stuart Stevens said about Obama, "He tried to do a somewhat charmless version of Joe Biden, but I don't think it worked particularly well. When you saw a different Al Gore in every debate, I think people find that disconcerting. One thing they want in a president is a steadiness and a dependability. They see a person one week ago and they see a different person tonight, and they think, what's next?"
Given that Stevens works for Mitt Romney, the most rawly cynical and opportunistic political cipher our system has ever had to suffer through, this is the kind of comment that makes you wish there was a disappointed Bond villain nearby who could pull a lever and suddenly drop him into a tank full of sharks. Sometimes I honestly think these guys sit around in a back room somewhere playing poker and smoking Cohibas and daring each other to come up with the line most likely to get them laughed out of the room. This kind of horseshit has got to be purposely pulled just to see how much the media will take before dropping their mics, yanking off their press credentials and storming off to go hit the nearest bar.
Last week on the podcast, I mentioned that one of the driving factors behind Romney's sudden poll vault might be that there has always been a core group of Americans that was looking for an excuse to not have to vote for Obama. I've said before that the political insanity the right has relentlessly sown over the past four years seems to be designed to exhaust voters into forcing them to return things to "the way they should be," namely with a standard-issue, boring white conservative in office. I think most people resist that tactic and that kind of thinking because they'd like to believe they can't be bullied into voting for somebody, but remember that Charlie Pierce over at Esquire recently offered up another potential reason why a voter who supported Obama four years ago might not this time around: because in the end, Obama isn't and never was a racial savior or a token symbol of progress come to salve the collective guilt of America, he's simply a political leader and one who's sane and savvy enough to want to see himself spend another four years in office rather than taken out back to become a sacrificial lamb.
My point is that a couple of weeks ago, Romney finally, after weeks and months of gaffes and general behavior that most centrist voters found unacceptably repulsive, managed to present himself as someone at least palatable. And that may have been enough for some tepid, hesitant Obama "supporters." The question, then, is whether Obama's debate performance in New York can be enough to potentially win those people back. If they do in fact exist, then all Romney had to do last night was continue to be able to stand on the same stage as the President of the United States and not utterly meltdown. I think he got beat up pretty badly and revealed his worst characteristics on that stage, certainly the ones most detrimental to his campaign, but I know that others won't necessarily see it that way. On the other hand, there's always the possibility that the people who desperately wanted a reason to continue supporting Obama or to feel strongly about him rather than simply ambivalent got what they were looking for in a big way last night. The president gave the faithful a reason to cheer -- and may have given the doubtful-but-hopeful a reason to commit.
He's got the media and pop culture narrative for the next week. About that, there's no doubt.
But there's still the final debate to contend with -- and the 16 days after that before this game of musical chairs finally ends.