Mitt Romney Just Made This Campaign Competitive Again

This is part of a continuing dialogue between Ramesh Ponnuru and Margaret Carlson about the 2012 campaign.

Margaret: Two minutes into the debate, I knew: If Mitt Romney didn’t wet himself, he would win.

One reason for that is the press wants such a victory -- it is bad for business for this election to be in the bag in October. Another is that the Republican presidential nominee went human right out of the gate.

After President Barack Obama noted that it was his 20th wedding anniversary, Romney congratulated him and joked that he would probably prefer to be someplace else celebrating. Even if it was one of his practiced zingers, he pulled it off. He hasn’t always been so lucky.

Overall, Romney looked like a man who’d gone to every class, pulled all-nighters, done work for extra credit and came prepared to ace the exam. He did it without sweating and by ignoring the proctor. He came to fight.

Obama, on the other hand, was taking this exam pass-fail. He kept his head down, raising it occasionally to flash the winning smile but otherwise letting all kinds of whoppers pass by. Paul Ryan's plan would cut $716 billion from Medicare, and not from providers but seniors. He’d privatize Social Security. Romney’s plan is trickle-down economics, yet he got away with accusing Obama of trickle-down government.

Obama’s laid-back approach to the night was most evident during the Medicare segment. He took the hit on taking $716 billion out of Medicare without explaining that it took no money from seniors but from overpayments to providers. Obama was so lame that it was up to Jim Lehrer to conclude at the end of the exchange that the two differed on the subject. If Obama can’t kill on Medicare, he should outsource his campaign to Bill Clinton. If only Clinton had been in on Obama’s debate prep.

It’s political malpractice that Obama didn’t mention Romney's infamous "47 percent" speech, that Romney’s education plan would destroy public schools, that his $5 trillion in tax cuts (with no loophole closings) would add to the deficit, that 50 million people will be uninsured under Romney because there is no functioning health-care market, that Romney’s running mate would destroy Medicare.

Maybe Obama missed his teleprompter. Maybe he thought the status quo would be enough. Maybe he thought he was in that Denver arena to play virtual basketball so he froze the ball. Romney repeatedly took three-point shots and Obama didn’t throw so much as an elbow.

Or maybe I saw it that way because, like my colleagues, I don’t want it all to end. The debate made no real news. Still, the exchanges between the nation's most powerful and potentially powerful person, alone and without aides whispering in their ears, were the most informative 90 minutes of the campaign so far.

(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.)

Ramesh: Republicans and Democrats were both amazed by that debate, Margaret: Republicans by how well their guy performed, Democrats by how badly theirs did. When Democrats said before the debate that Obama was out of practice, they were lowering expectations. Maybe they were also telling the truth. Or maybe the conventional wisdom of the last few weeks -- the race is over, and Obama won -- has made the president complacent.

Romney made the most focused appeal to middle-class voters on the basis of how his agenda would help them -- on energy, on health care, on jobs -- that he ever has. It was the first time a lot of Americans have seen him showing the impressive command of facts and figures that journalistic profiles of his career always mention. On several occasions, Romney managed to accuse Obama of lying without seeming mean or whiny.

Obama, on the other hand, didn’t win a single exchange as far as I could tell. The other day, Margaret, you wrote that Obama has succeeded in making this campaign a referendum on Romney rather than on him. In trying to advance that strategy at the debate, though, Obama made Romney look more presidential than he is: noting areas of agreement, pleading for more information about the other guy’s plans, and generally scanting his own record. Obama’s best shot at Romney was that he wasn’t keeping the details of his policies hidden because they’re so great. But Obama missed obvious opportunities to talk about Romney’s 47 percent fiasco, or to tout his auto bailout.

On Twitter, liberals were telling Obama what he should have said. (I get the feeling you were muttering at the TV some of the time, too.) That’s what conservatives were afraid they’d be doing. “I’m LeBron, baby,” Obama once famously said about his political skills. Not last night he wasn’t.

(Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist.)

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