If Mitt Romney campaigns over the next month in the bold, aggressive manner he debated Wednesday night, he will be the next president.
In a thoroughly dominating performance, Romney bested Barack Obama in both tone and substance. Romney was plainly well prepared and made his points with a policy fluency that eluded Obama for much of the night. The president’s answers were often too long and rambling. Obama repeatedly found himself at the end of a verbal cul-de-sac, seemingly unaware of how he’d ended up there.
Over the course of the 90-minute debate, a steady, confident Romney drove a sharp contrast with Obama that has sometimes been lost in his campaign’s effort to appeal to independents and former Obama voters in swing states. Romney’s tone was pitch perfect – respectful but not deferential, aggressive but not overzealous, detailed but not too wonky. He spoke with the kind of urgency about the direction of the country that reflects the anxiety so many Americans have expressed. Romney was, without question, the more passionate of the two candidates on stage, and his feelings did not seem contrived.
It’s true that there were no real standout one-liners or “zingers.” But there were two moments that defined the debate. The first came halfway through, during the discussion of the debt. As the conversation drifted away from entitlement reform, Romney sought to bring it back.
“Can we stay on Medicare,” he asked moderator Jim Lehrer. “Let’s stay on Medicare.”
Is there anyone alive who would have predicted six months ago that the Republican challenger would seek to focus the first presidential debate on entitlement reform? The best two weeks of the Romney campaign came after the announcement of Paul Ryan as Romney’s running mate, when the ticket willed itself to go on offense. Watching the campaign during that two-week window it felt as though they had thrown out all of the focus groups and tracking polls and made an impassioned argument based on what’s best for the country.
The second defining moment of the debate came late, when Lehrer asked the candidates about their views on the role of government in American life. Obama went first and gave a robust and unapologetic defense of big government.
“Is there a fundamental difference between the two of you on how you view the mission of the federal government?” Lehrer asked.
After briefly noting that the first role of government is to protect the American people, Obama launched into a long, rambling endorsement of an activist federal government. “I also believe that government has the capacity – the federal government has the capacity to help open up opportunity, entry ladders of opportunity, and to create frameworks where the American people can succeed.” Obama said that the “genius of America” is its free enterprise system and then quickly turned back to “things we do better together” – by which he means through the government.
Romney, by contrast, answered by invoking the founding principles. He spoke of taking care of one another without automatically assigning that responsibility to “the federal government.”
The role of government—look behind us: the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. The role of government is to promote and protect the principles of those documents. First, life and liberty. We have a responsibility to protect the lives and liberties of our people, and that means the military, second to none. I do not believe in cutting our military. I believe in maintaining the strength of America's military. Second, in that line that says, we are endowed by our Creator with our rights -- I believe we must maintain our commitment to religious tolerance and freedom in this country. That statement also says that we are endowed by our Creator with the right to pursue happiness as we choose. I interpret that as, one, making sure that those people who are less fortunate and can't care for themselves are cared by -- by one another. We're a nation that believes that we're all children of the same God. And we care for those that have difficulties -- those that are elderly and have problems and challenges, those that disabled, we care for them. And we look for discovery and innovation, all these things desired out of the American heart to provide the pursuit of happiness for our citizens. But we also believe in maintaining for individuals the right to pursue their dreams, and not to have the government substitute itself for the rights of free individuals. And what we're seeing right now is, in my view, a trickle-down government approach which has government thinking it can do a better job than free people pursuing their dreams.
Romney delivered a performance in Denver that will surely invigorate Republicans and will probably persuade some undecided voters to give him a shot. His task now is to make sure that the final month of his campaign extends the bold, aggressive, and confident tone he established in the first debate.