Most of the post-debate punditry has focused on Barack Obama’s failure to win last week's head-to-head match-up. Both the left and right seem to agree that Obama lost, with disagreement as to why that happened, naturally.
But perhaps it should be looked at in a different way: Obama did not lose so much as Romney won. A highly skilled, albeit vastly underrated, candidate showed what he was really made of on Thursday.
The rap on Mitt Romney all year has been that he’s gaffe-prone, inept, run a bad campaign, etc. But is this really fair? I don’t think so. Consider all the things he has done well:
1. He won the GOP nomination relatively early (considering how frontloading the primaries was scaled back this cycle) and bloodlessly. Sure, it was messy at times, but he clearly has united the Republican party around him. Many of his once-staunchest opponents in the party – both high profile commentators and grassroots voters alike – are now counted among his strongest allies.
2. He did so without breaking the bank. In fact, he and the RNC have raised more money than Barack Obama and the DNC in June, July, and August – and the GOP entered Labor Day having nearly $70 million more in cash on hand.
3. He did so without having to adopt political opinions that alienated him from the middle of the electorate, or his base. In fact, his voting coalition was the center of the GOP electorate – not too far to the left, nor too far to the right.
4. He did so despite the fact that much of the conservative pundit class and the mainstream media were consistently interested in other candidates. There was a new flavor of the month every month, but Romney was always in the mix, and proved himself the most put-together candidate of the pack.
5. He made a great vice presidential pick.
6. He gave a solid nomination acceptance address that undercut Barack Obama’s summer-long argument that Romney was a heartless plutocrat. Unfortunately, he did not get much of a convention bounce, but that was due to the DNC being held just days later, as opposed to any lackluster performance by Romney.
7. He tends to be very strong in debate formats – coming across as earnest, knowledgeable, and exuberant.
Naturally, the media has crafted a narrative of an incompetent campaign in disarray. But that’s what the media does – it picks narratives and runs with them, regardless of whether they best capture the essence of the race. And when you look back over history, you can see that the media’s emphases are often quite arbitrary, and sometimes tendentious.
Did the media in 2008 run with the narrative that Barack Obama’s past affiliations and comments undercut his claim to be a bipartisan healer? Of course not.
Did the media in 2000 run with the narrative that Al Gore was less principled than he pretended to be during the general election, or that his academic record undercut his claim to be a policy wonk? Of course not.
Did the media in 1992 do sufficient investigation into Bill Clinton’s background in Arkansas, similar to how it has looked into Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital? Of course not.
Did the media in 1976 run with the narrative that Jimmy Carter was an opportunist of the first degree, flip-flopping even on the issue of race relations, as he angled his way from the Georgia senate to the presidency? Of course not.
Did the media in 1960 call out JFK for his red-baiting, scaring Americans into believing that there was a missile gap that did not, in fact, exist? Of course not.
In other words, the media regularly develops memes – often prompted by the candidates to whom they are partial – and then it looks around for evidence to support that meme. Contrary evidence is ignored, excluded, cut out. These alternative narratives often emerge only years after the campaigns have concluded.
Put aside the notion that Romney is a hopelessly weak candidate and we can see that, in fact, he has a lot of strengths. I would argue that he is the most articulate and passionate Republican nominee since at least Ronald Reagan, and perhaps even more so than the Gipper.
Maybe that is why Romney crushed Barack Obama last Thursday.
Jay Cost is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic, available now wherever books are sold.