Romney and Obama at Denver debate

Reuters / Rick Wilking

I’m going to write up my thoughts on the debate without having read or watched any talking-head reactions. I’d rather not have my impressions influenced. I believe this is a tradition Kevin Drum shares, but I can’t go check because I might inadvertently read his debate piece.

On climate change, it was just as I predicted: nothing. Not a whisper. On energy too, just as I predicted: a series of soundbites recycled from countless stump speeches.

A few things jumped out at me on energy. First was Romney’s slightly misleading but close-enough attack on Obama for investing $90 billion in wind and solar. He said that 50 percent of the projects had failed — an outrageous lie — but more to the point, he’s just tacking straight against public opinion on this. Americans of both parties, all ages, and every region support investments in clean energy. I can’t believe he was dumb enough to highlight it.

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Romney tried to blunt Obama’s oil triumphalism with the by-now-familiar charge that oil production has only risen on private land but has declined on public land. That is also false, but Obama made no effort to engage it. And finally, Obama got in a few zingy lines about oil subsidies, but as usual, they were blunted by the fact that he was praising high oil production mere minutes prior.

Really, nothing about the energy bits popped enough to be remembered by anyone but us long-suffering energy journalists. (“I like coal”!) If you want a more detailed factcheck, Stephen Lacey has you covered.

How about the debate overall?

The first thing to note is that Jim Lehrer is a terrible moderator. It’s not just that he lost control, let the candidates filibuster, and asked incoherent follow-ups, it’s his choice of questions. It was like a parody of center-right Beltway conventional wisdom: the first three were on taxes, deficits, and entitlements. In every case, the implied question was, “how and when are you going to cut them?” That, apparently, is what “the economy” means to Very Serious People in a presidential race. Pete Peterson rules their world.

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Note especially that it’s a framework biased in favor of conservatives. American voters legendarily do not like taxes, deficits, or “entitlements” in the abstract. But when it comes to specifics, they like government programs. They like Social Security and Medicare and education spending and supporting clean energy and raising taxes on the rich. When the discussion stays on specifics, politicians who support government programs win. When the discussion stays in the ether of “spending” and “the role of government,” conservatives win. The whole debate framework was designed around just those abstractions.

The second thing to say is that, on points, Romney won. He was confident, energetic, aggressive (sometimes too much so), and articulate. What’s more, he finally, finally decided it’s time to pivot to the center. He was jovial, feigned compassion, and waxed eloquent on how much he loves regulations. He promised to save Medicare, claimed “I have no tax cut,” and said the words “middle class” eleventy million times. None of his much-foretold zingers really landed, but he didn’t come off as his usual stiff self either. (It goes without saying that he was relentlessly mendacious, especially about his tax plan, but that doesn’t much matter.)

What’s more, Obama was just … out of it. His debate style has always been to lay back and stay calm. I remember very well watching his debates with McCain and thinking over and over again, “there’s the opening! Go in for the kill!” He never did. He played it cool and the polls (not to mention the election) showed that he made the right decision. And in a campaign where his lead is small but stable, it’s probably the right strategy: hold back, look calm and presidential, and run out the clock.

This time, though, he overshot the mark. He came across as practically somnolent, choppily reciting boring answers interspersed with pauses and “ums.” He utterly failed to play on any of the themes about Romney — his wealth, his disdain for working people — that his campaign has spent millions of dollars establishing. He let lie after lie go unanswered. He got off a decent line here and there, but for the most part, especially the crucial first 30 minutes, he was just sluggish. None of his wit or charisma showed through. Right now the insta-polls show that the public deemed Romney the winner by a decent margin. At least judging by Twitter chatter, most journos and pundits agree.

That said, I don’t think it was anything like the blowout some are portraying. The thing to remember is that most people who avidly watch these things, analyze them, and talk about them are partisans. They want their guy to attack, to aggressively refute the other guy’s lies, to get feisty. Obama has always frustrated liberals for exactly this reason.

But over the next week or two, as polls settle out a bit, my bet is that Obama’s zen will serve him better than most political obsessives think. Casual viewers only see affect, and what they see in Obama is someone who’s calm and reasonable, no matter what. That’s reassuring (especially, it must unfortunately be said, in a black man). The general public doesn’t like righteous anger and sharp elbows nearly as much as the kind of people who live-tweet debates do. Ahem.

In the end, I doubt the debate will have much of an effect on the outcome of the race. Nate Silver’s got it about right when he says Romney “may have done the equivalent of kick a field goal, perhaps not bringing the race to draw, but setting himself up in such a way that his comeback chances have improved by a material amount.” Romney succeeded in not completely cementing the loser narrative that’s been gathering around him … but he still needs something big and unexpected to shake things up if he hopes to win.