Mitt Romney won Wednesday night's debate with President Barack Obama. That might be a substantial help to him in the presidential race — if enough Americans managed to stay awake through the whole thing.
This first encounter between the Republican Mr. Romney and the Democrat Mr. Obama in a race framed by partisans as an epochal clash between two radically different visions for America produced little passion from either candidate. There were no memorable moments that are likely to help define this race; no "there you go again," no George W. Bush glancing at his watch, no Al Gore sighing. Instead, we got a statistics-filled conversation about the effects of both men's tax plans on the deficit and economy, the details of Dodd-Frank financial regulations and the relative merits of the virtually identical health care reform plans the two candidates enacted as governor and president, respectively. It was a C-SPAN producer's dream.
Mr. Romney was generally judged the winner because he was pointed but not over the top in his criticism of the president's policies and because he managed to humanize himself and dispel some of the notion that he is, in his own words from the Republican primary campaign, "severely conservative." Mr. Romney admitted the need for regulations in a free economy, averred that he had no intention of reducing the share of the nation's tax burden borne by the rich and disavowed any intention of changing the structure of Social Security.
He was particularly effective in a section in which he was asked to describe his view of the role of government. He gestured to the scenery behind him, where the words of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were displayed, and used Thomas Jefferson's famous phrase about "inalienable rights" to describe a government that protects its people with a strong military, maintains religious tolerance and freedom, and ensures the pursuit of happiness by making sure that the less fortunate are cared for. "We're a nation that believes we're all children of the same God, and we care for those that have difficulties." That sounds a lot different from the man who wrote off nearly half of the nation as shiftless and dependent on government handouts.
Unfortunately for Mr. Romney, appreciating the humanizing nature of his performance requires the cumulative effect of a 90-minute debate. There was no one, made-for-TV moment that will convey that sense to voters in a way that will counteract the devastating salvos of attack ads the president and his allies have unleashed on the Republican nominee in swing states.
Given how aggressive Mr. Obama's campaign has been in defining his opponent since this summer, it was shocking that he did so little of it in the debate. The president had his moments — for example in pointing out the vagueness of Mr. Romney's plans on taxes and health care reform — but he missed obvious opportunities to reinforce the picture he has been painting of an out-of-touch, heartless corporate baron. Mr. Romney gave him plenty of openings. When the Republican made a joke about needing better accountants to find a tax loophole for exporting jobs, how exactly did the president miss the chance to hit him on the 14 percent or less Mr. Romney pays in federal taxes and his record of job outsourcing jobs while at Bain Capital? How did the words "47 percent" never come up in a 90-minute debate?
The president came across as flat and disengaged. He seemed to lack the spirit to either attack his opponent or lay out a vision for a second term. The policy prescriptions he advocated last night were almost exactly the same as the ones he might have advanced in 2008. Anyone who missed the last four years would no doubt have a hard time believing that the man who stood on the debate stage last night was seen not so long ago as an inspirational, transformative figure in American politics.
The problem with trying to figure out who won or lost a debate, however, is that it treats the two sides of each issue as if they were equally valid. That is clearly not the case. No matter how many times Mitt Romney insisted that his plan to lower income tax rates across the board while increasing military spending would not increase the deficit, there is still no way to make the math add up without eliminating a host of deductions that help the middle class. And no matter how strongly he might insist that the president plans to hurt seniors by cutting $716 billion from Medicare, the fact remains that the specific provision in the Affordable Care Act he's referring to actually extends the life of the Medicare trust fund.
Nonetheless, Mr. Romney, as a challenger, is bound to get some bounce from having held his own and more next to a sitting president. His campaign had appeared to be in free fall, and now it has likely stabilized. Mr. Obama surely must now realize that he cannot simply play defense and run out the clock on this election.