Close to seventy million Americans watched the first presidential debate, a figure that easily outpaced the next largest viewership of sixty-two million viewers for the first Bush/Kerry debate in 2004, and the fifty-two million viewers of the first McCain/Obama debate in 2008. Of those almost seventy million, according to Gallup, almost three-quarters believe Mitt Romney won. What did those seventy million Americans see?
First, they saw, for the first time, Mitt Romney as Mitt Romney. The Mitt Romney that showed up in Denver was the opposite of the Obama caricature of the “vulture capitalist,” who distains the lower “47 percent,” closes companies for profit and kills off cancer stricken wives of fired employees, who ships jobs overseas and cares only for his fellow one-percenters.
Second, Romney’s method was every bit as impressive as what he said. While pointing out the failings of the Obama administration and looking right at the president while doing it, Romney was prepared, affable, articulate, optimistic, and most importantly, presidential. He fully inhabited the space and the moment.
Third, he showed that he, unlike George H.W. Bush, gets the “vision thing.” People do not rally around a five point economic plan; they rally around vision and Mitt Romney provided a vision of economic freedom and leadership around which to rally.
Fourth, the almost seventy million viewers observed a president truly out of ideas. Beyond repeating ad nauseum the notion of a “balanced approach” to addressing the deficit and offering the vapid, meaningless phrase “new economic patriotism” (2012’s “hope and change”), he peddled small ball ideas (grants for college), offered no plausible defense for his historic deficits and debt, and resorted to campaign talking points (eliminating the $2b deduction for oil companies).
Fifth, viewers saw with their own eyes – through the helpful split screen – that the President cannot take criticism. He was constantly shaking his head, smirking, and looking down at his hands. This aversion to criticism is profoundly important for it suggests the president lives in an approval bubble immune from criticism, outside ideas, or even reality.