I am stunned. I knew Romney was a good debater, that he was desperate to connect on a Hail Mary pass to resuscitate his dying campaign, and that he would come out swinging. But I thought the President would eat him for lunch (or in view of the hour, dinner). Obama had conceived and executed a brilliant campaign, as he had in 2008. Now, he had so much to work with. Romney has been on both sides of many issues, the Flip Flopper in Chief. No matter what he said, no matter where he came out on the issues, specific or not, Romney was vulnerable to attack as unworthy of belief. And there were gaffes galore to explore, the 47 percent video just the pick of the litter.
So I settled in on the couch with wife and friends to watch Matador Obama play with and ultimately destroy Bull Romney. The contest was going to end last night, with the President building on his already substantial lead, his lengthening coattails assuring continued Democratic control of the Senate. It was not just we Democrats and other progressives who shared these expectations; Republicans and conservatives like Joe Scarborough and company had been excoriating Romney and his campaign staff for weeks and had all but pronounced him dead and buried.
Plenty of ink has already been spilled noting that it did not work out that way last night. But what we are seeing is not just surprise at the Democratic Commander in Chief having a bad night. We are seeing, and sharing, shock and disbelief at the magnitude of the loss, of the breakdown, and at our inability to understand it and the reasons for it. These feelings are at the root of the outrage at the President and his staff expressed last night for the first time, almost unanimously, by the talking heads on MSNBC, led by Chris Matthews. In our household, these feelings have lingered through the night and into this dreary day. Why, we ask, why?
This is a President who has fought two wars he inherited (and didn’t want), who took the fight to Bin Laden, Al Qaeda and the Taliban with surges, Special Forces, helicopters, and drones. He also coordinated the attack in Libya. But he could not bring himself to attack Mitt Romney, in the most critical debate of the campaign? When he himself was being attacked for virtually the entire 90 minutes of the debate? He knows, mustn’t he, that no campaign can be won by refusing to attack one’s opponent? Yet that is precisely what we witnessed. The President allowed himself to be a punching bag, through relentless attacks by Romney, through lies and flip flops about the Romney tax plan, the Romney health care plan, the Romney deficit reduction plan, and the newfound Romney concern about jobs for the jobless 25 million and rest of the under-employed 47 percent. Romney even repeated his perverse glee at firing people himself, noting that he was going to give the ax to Big Bird, moderator Lehrer and many of the folks at PBS and NPR whose livelihoods depend upon the government’s support of public broadcasting. Yet not one word was heard from Obama, reminding us of Romney’s earlier gaffe on the subject of firing people, or of any of the others.
The explanations we have heard from the campaign and others so far—we wanted to stick to the issues and have an adult conversation with the American people; Obama just did not prepare properly or long enough; Obama did not want to appear angry and un-Presidential—just do not explain what happened. Obama’s television ads in swing states, like Romney’s, are neither adult conversations on the issues nor devoid of attacks; and one can attack one’s opponent, on the issues and on character, with a smile and a rapier rather than a sneer and a mallet.
So what accounts for the appalling performance last night? Was it a conscious strategic choice not to attack—thereby betraying weakness to the American people at this critical stage of the campaign—or was it the unconscious product of a personality, developed over many years, that shrinks from personal confrontation? One cannot help but recall Obama’s seeming inability to confront Republicans in Congress over their intransigence and obstructionism borne of an intense desire to destroy Obama’s presidency, to prevent his re-election, even if it meant taking the country down with him. One wonders whether the same explanation is at the root of both seemingly inexplicable phenomena.
We may know more after the second and third debates. We will also see in the next few days how big a bounce Romney gets from the President’s unbelievable performance. It may be that those still undecided are too few to throw the election to Romney. But the American people do not cotton to weakness. They may not articulate it, but they sense it and turn away from it, which is why Chris Matthews and the MSNBC crew were howling in dismay last night.