The earth moved in Denver last week. A chunk of realist landscape broke through the media’s gloomy, impressionist artwork, as Mitt Romney dominated Barrack Obama in the first presidential debate.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men insist one good performance by the challenger and one off night for the president don’t really change anything. But in fact, they change everything.
The race is recast for several reasons: Everything voters believe—or have endlessly heard-- about the candidates was called into question. Romney’s dismantling of the president wasn’t just a win. The 90 minute encounter reintroduced the men in ways that elevate Romney, seriously wound Obama, and unmask the media as surrealist traffickers in distortion and fantasy.
Finally, the victory, borne on Romney’s spirited defense of American free enterprise and civic culture, energized a conservative base the media has labored desperately to demoralize.
Until Wednesday, things looked different. Voters know things are bad. President Obama hasn’t kept his promises, either in delivering results or bringing a new, post-partisan, unifying approach. But voters aren’t sure just how badly Obama has performed. For four years, the media painted him as the smartest, clearest-eyed, coolest leader in history. During that time, they’ve refused to ask tough questions or cover bad news that might undermine their admiring portrait.
Tough words or bad news have been occasions for blaming the president’s predecessor of four years past, or an obstructionist Congress, or greedy bankers and oil companies.
Meanwhile, the media’s had a year, all summer in particular, to hype and frenzy over any Romney error, real or fabricated, and to assign him any defect or character flaw, debatable or outrageous and slanderous.
When the two men walked on the stage at Richie Arena, casual viewers paying attention for the first time probably had a vague impression of Romney as a stiff, silver-spooned, tax-dodging, benefit slashing, wife killing, corporate raider who decimated worker pensions for sport.
And still, the polls were within the margin of error.
Within minutes, Americans could see and hear for themselves Romney is a warm, serious-minded, incredibly intelligent and articulate leader who understands Americans are hurting; we can do better; and he wants to free us up to turn things around.
Similarly, when ideas, pushes, and shoves were exchanged, voters saw a different Barack Obama. He was not the likeable colossus. Contrary to fawning media treatment, viewers saw a president who wasn’t especially warm, who was aloof, cool, and exuded a tired air of resentment he had to justify his ideas and defend his record.
It’s a hard record to defend. For 90 minutes, Romney pressed the president on lagging jobs, struggling families, exploding debt, and no relief in sight. For 90 minutes Romney asked the president like no one in four years has to account for a trillion wasted stimulus dollars; to explain how he can claim trillions in deficit reduction when his budget plans still project trillion dollar deficits into the known future; to account for the sudden importance of 100,000 new teachers when the $90 billion he’s wasted on green crony corruption could have hired 2 million teachers.
Obama responded to virtually none of it. He stuck to his talking points, mainly accusing Romney of pushing a 5 trillion tax cut for the wealthy that would force tax increases for the middle class. Romney cheerfully swatted that away with logic and nuance the dishonorable media has not paid him the courtesy of covering: he is talking about reducing tax rates, not tax burden. He intends to incent and stimulate investors and job creators so the economy grows and there is more work and prosperity for all. The wealthy will pay as much or more of the share of total taxation, as they are now.
Romney might have added that this pattern of the wealthy paying even more after rate cuts would repeat the nation’s experience under Presidents Kennedy and Reagan. That would make it a little harder for Obama’s media guards to call his proposal a lie, though they’d probably find a way.
When all was concluded, the biggest lie of the evening probably came from the president’s forced smile: “Thank you. This has been a terrific debate.”
The post mortems have alternatively speculated Obama was just off; it was a strategy decision to float above the fray; or, from the zanier precincts: maybe it was a combination of high altitude, missing his buddy teleprompter, and snuck-in Romney cheat sheets.
One important effect is the public seeing Obama forced to defend positions and answer questions that an institution worthy of the name “free press” should have been asking him. If a mere challenger can put the president on his heels, where has the fourth estate been for four years? (We all know the answer: mostly worshiping at the alter).
Beyond trying to find “lies” to recapture the story line, the media comforts itself with history: Mondale and Kerry also won the first debate, but Reagan and Bush went on to win reelection.
They are missing the river for the ripples. In 1984, America felt tremendous progress and wanted to stay with Reagan. In 2004, America felt protected and wanted to stay with Bush. The rippling debates didn’t turn the underlying reality.
Today, America feels discouraged and let down, and wants to move past Obama. Romney gave them comfort and solid grounds to do that.
It is 1980 again.