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.
It’s not hard to understand why. His entire world overwhelmingly approves of his every move: his staffs (official, campaign), the media, fundraiser attendees, and campaign supporters. No member of these groups asks the President tough questions, or forces him to explain the rationales for his policies, or demands he justify the results his policies have wrought. Indeed, it’s doubtful that Jay Z demanded the president account for the outrageous black unemployment rate of 14%.
Sixth, the debate evinced the President’s entitlement mentality towards his office, as he has apparently bought into his own advertising: he believes he deserves to be president just because he is Barack Obama, and therefore he is above reproach, above questions, above the necessity to defend himself and his record. Shattering this broken narrative, Mitt Romney succeeded in pointing out the evidence of the president’s failures in crisp three-point barbs.
Seventh, and perhaps most importantly, Romney demonstrated that he understands the suffering of those struggling to stay afloat during the Obama recession, and is competent to provide solutions to help them. Romney’s answers often started with empathy, referencing specific individuals he has met during the campaign who are out of work or losing their house. He then transitioned to specific proposals to grow the economy and provide jobs necessary to reduce unemployment and its attendant externalities. Caring and competency are what voters want, and what Romney offered in spades.
Rasmussen now has Romney leading in 11 battleground states President Obama won in 2008, and several other deep blue Midwestern states suddenly appear in play. Depending on the vice presidential debate this week, the post-debate bounce may persist or fade. Regardless, Romney showed in the first debate that he belonged on that stage, that he’s worthy of the moment, and that he’s starting to find the potent mix of vision, specifics, and optimistic criticism so necessary to win the office to which he has for so long been aspiring, and to which he is now that much closer.