Until last week’s debate, the presidential campaign had followed a fairly conventional path. True to form, Democrats struck early, trying to score a knockout before Labor Day and before their opponent had a chance to get his campaign off the ground. Over the summer, President Obama’s reelection campaign spent large sums on ads designed to portray Mitt Romney as an out-of-touch investment banker and right-wing -ideologue. By late September, this strategy appeared to have worked. Obama was leading by several points nationally and by larger margins in swing states, especially in Ohio, where Obama’s bailout of the auto industry gives him some powerful talking points. In addition, Romney’s personal ratings were “underwater”: More voters viewed him in a negative than in a positive light. Many in the mainstream news media concluded that the race was all but over.
Also true to form, Republicans held their fire over the summer in the belief that swing voters make up their minds in October rather than in July or August. Romney suffered through a miserable summer as Obama hammered him daily in the swing states. His convention turned out to be a dud; his own acceptance speech lacked fire and substance. By early October, with his supporters demoralized and the election slipping away, Romney’s emphasis on the first debate as a potential “game changer” appeared more and more a strategy of desperation. Few could have anticipated that his bet would pay off.
Romney’s surprising performance in last week’s debate may turn out to have been the pivotal event in this year’s presidential campaign, much as Kennedy’s confrontation with Nixon in 1960 was a turning point in that contest. Like Nixon, Obama had a reputation as a master debater; unlike Kennedy, who was something of an unknown, Romney had a reputation as a fumbler with a penchant for gaffes. Far more than Kennedy’s, Romney’s triumph was a stunner for the nearly 70 million viewers who watched it. President Obama, meanwhile, seemed bored with the proceedings, not unlike George H. W. Bush, who was caught checking his watch in a 1992 debate with Bill Clinton.
The debate did not win the election for Romney, but it energized his campaign, gave it a theme, and put him in a position to close the gap on Obama. Romney’s supporters, knowing that they have a candidate, will now be more willing to make calls, knock on doors, come out to vote, and open their wallets for the cause. Independent voters, opposed to Obama but doubtful about Romney, will now give him a second look.
More important, Romney was able to use the debate to land some near lethal blows against Obama-care and Obama’s slow growth/high deficit economy. Romney set forth a multi-count indictment against Obama’s signature health care legislation: It takes $716 billion from Medicare; it was rammed through on partisan votes; it diverted attention from jobs and the economy; it is too expensive and complex; it delegates authority over health care to an unelected board in Washington. On the economy and the deficit, Romney almost sounded like a born-again supply-sider, emphasizing growth, tax cuts, and elimination of regulations. These attacks appeared to have caught Obama off-guard. Obama, having invested so much in disqualifying Romney, forgot that he might have to defend his own record.
Obama has invested much of his ammunition in a now-failed effort to put Romney away. He will undoubtedly recycle his attacks on Romney’s taxes and background in private equity, but these may prove stale in the midst of a newly spirited debate over national policy and the future direction of the country. Nevertheless, Obama maintains certain advantages of incumbency, one sign of which was the announcement in September of the Federal Reserve Board’s latest bond-buying program designed to drive interest rates down and the stock market up. The latest jobs report from the Labor Department, which pegged the new unemployment rate at 7.8 percent, the first time it has been below 8 percent in nearly four years, shows the risk to the Romney campaign of depending too heavily on a jobs-jobs-jobs mantra.
Romney’s debate triumph almost guarantees that the outcome of the election will be close. At the same time, it may yet succeed in raising the level of the campaign to one commensurate with the magnitude of the problems the nation faces. The entitlement state is lurching ever closer to an existential crisis. Internationally, the postwar system, propped up by the American dollar and American military power, is headed toward an uncertain transition. An America burdened by debt and slow growth -cannot maintain either its domestic programs or its role abroad. Neither candidate, least of all President Obama, has yet scaled up his game to address these challenges. By besting Obama in Denver, Romney blew up the president’s plan to win with a “small ball” campaign. In doing so, he may have inadvertently forced a debate over the issues that really matter.
James Piereson is president of the William E. Simon Foundation and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.