"I don't know how he let Romney get away with the crap he threw out tonight."
- Chris Matthews, MSNBC, 10/03/2012
It is never a pleasant experience to lead an article with a Chris Matthews quote, but in this instance, it suits the moment. Something like 60 million people tuned in Wednesday night to watch President Obama and Governor Romney face each other in the first debate of the election. What they got, in the end, was a mess.
First of all, and let's just get this one out of the way, it is my devout hope that Jim Lehrer has moderated his last debate. The man lost control of the situation from the beginning, interrupted the participants on multiple occasions, and allowed Mr. Romney to steamroll through time limit after time limit. It was as if some recently-unemployed NFL replacement referee wandered onstage and took the moderator's chair. Lehrer seemed to have no conception of the purpose of his role in the event, threw flags that were not warranted, and called holding penalties that only served to interrupt the flow. Jim Lehrer, sad to say, made David Gregory's performance during the Scott Brown-Elizabeth Warren debate look like Masterpiece Theater by comparison, and that, my friends, is saying something.
But that gripe only goes so far. Mr. Obama, I am sure, was counseled to be cautious on Wednesday night; after all, he's ahead, and all the pressure was on Romney to come through in a big way. For my part, I had high hopes that Mr. Obama would be aggressive with Romney, pin him down on any number of the contradictions and outright fabrications that define the GOP candidate's campaign, and park the argument once and for all in front of the largest audience this race is likely to see: this guy is a fatuous gasbag, a rudderless bullshit artist of the purest ray serene, and here is the proof...and here, and here, and here, and also here and here, and here, and also here.
It did not happen that way.
Three moments from Wednesday night stand out for me in high relief.
The first came when Mr. Romney re-re-re-re-re-told the $716 billion Medicare lie around 43 minutes into the debate. To wit: "Under the president's plan, he cuts Medicare by $716 billion, takes that money out of the Medicare trust fund and uses it to pay for Obamacare," said Romney. This is a brazen lie, which was debunked in front of a massive television audience by former President Bill Clinton during the Democratic National Convention to lethal effect. This was around the tenth outright lie Romney told on Wednesday night, but would not be the last. Mr. Obama, in that moment, had a golden opportunity to blow Mr. Romney right out of the room. By calling Romney out on that one epic deception, by driving the point home hard and deep, Obama would have in the process called every other assertion Romney made, and would make, into question. Tag a liar for being a liar, and he stays a liar in the eyes of all in observance.
But that great big fat hanging meatball of a pitch sailed right over the plate, and Mr. Obama did not swing at it. A dozen other like-sized lies meatballed their way slowly and ponderously through the strike zone as the evening ground on, and in similar fashion, Mr. Obama turned up his nose and allowed them to slap into the catcher's mitt unmolested.
The second moment came during the "Role of Government" segment. Both candidates, when asked about their opinions on the role of government in American society, delivered a word-salad that best represents...well, nothing, really, at all. Word-salad is made of iceberg lettuce: it has no nutritional value, very little taste, but will pass through the system without upsetting the digestion. Romney and Obama both went into safe and happy mode during this portion of the debate, which I am sure pleased the Romney camp to no end, because it was during that segment that they were most in peril.
See, in a discussion of the role of government, Mr. Obama could have brought up Mr. Romney's widely-known opinions on 47 percent of the populace, and annihilated for all time the idea that half the country is comprised of victims who only want to live on the public dole. He didn't. Mr. Obama could have brought up the state-level GOP government jihad on women's reproductive rights, and indeed on women's very lives.
Mr. Obama served up another word-salad instead, and allowed Mr. Romney to escape a moment that could have defined not only this campaign, but the ongoing argument in this country. Mr. Obama had the opportunity, in front of 60 million people, to tattoo the catechism of the far right onto Mr. Romney's forehead, but once again, he let the moment slide by.
Which brings me, most frustratingly, to moment number three.
In minute 77 of the debate, Mr. Romney donned a big, sad hound-dog face and rolled off a litany of economic woes currently being endured by the American people. Here is the big chance, I thought as I watched, for Mr. Obama to put the bricks to his opponent in undeniable fashion. Here is the moment to repeat everything Romney said about high unemployment, more people on food stamps and all the rest of that sad, accurate assessment of modern American life...and then remind the country of the Republican Party's catastrophic record during the 21st century, remind everyone that Romney is a Republican, and say, "You built that."
Talk about a zinger.
But of course it didn't happen. Mr. Romney was allowed to go on and on about the economic problems America is dealing with without ever once having to recognize and answer for the fact that it was the policies of his own party - indeed, the policies he still espouses - that caused this whole debacle to begin with...because Mr. Obama failed to hold all that against him. It isn't as if Mr. Obama doesn't know these things. He does. We all do; it's axiomatic at this point. He just failed to call the guilty parties to account, on national television, in front of 60 million Americans, at the moment when doing so would have, quite simply, sealed the deal.
Mr. Obama had opportunity after opportunity to draw a bright, shining line between the policies he is pursuing and the demented nonsense being espoused by his opponent, and he could not summon the will to do so. Mr. Obama had the opportunity to underscore the dangerous madness boiling behind the scenes of Romney's plastic-fantastic campaign, and he failed to do so. Allowing such a freight of nonsense to pass undisturbed gives that freight unwarranted legitimacy, and Mr. Obama was too polite - or too whatever - to call out The Crazy for what it is.
Here's what I know for sure: The "mainstream" news media has been slavering for an opportunity to explode the headlines and TV shows with "Romney's Back, It's Close!" stories, because a close race is what moves the money their way. They got their chance on Wednesday night, and they will take it. Welcome to the rest of the week, and the weeks to come.
Here's what I know for sure: blaming the moderator is a weak excuse. Jim Lehrer was terrible, but Mr. Obama is very suddenly running out of time to demonstrate that he is the President of the United States of America, and not just a nice guy who allows himself to be interrupted with a pained look on his face by a professional liar and an incompetent media fossil.
Here's what I know for sure: despite a lot of people's giggling self-satisfied assurances over these last comfortable summer months that the deal has already gone down and the history of this race is already written, this election is, in fact and all of a sudden, far from over.
And they say Mr. Obama hasn't gotten anything done. On Wednesday night, he turned a rout into a contest again, and all by himself. Given the state of the race on Wednesday morning, that's quite the accomplishment.