Mitt Romney came prepared to last night’s debate. Not only in terms of the facts and figures of his own programs and agenda, but in terms of how to deal with the many different ways in which his opponent, President Barack Obama, would try to distort them.
Patiently, with a good-sport’s smile, without a hint of anger, Romney sought time and again to correct those distortions. Each time the president made the claim that Romney’s plans would cost $5 trillion plus the $2 trillion born by his proposed military budget expansion – the Republican insisted on restating that those accusations are unfounded and that none of his tax cut proposals would be made at the expense of the deficit.
Romney was so good at those corrections for the record, that by the time Obama repeated the same charge for the third time he sounded tired, haggard, even uninspired, compared with his aggressive but always good natured rival.
I’ve never seen Romney be this good.
Whether because he really did spend the last couple of months cramming for this test, or because in the clash between his and Obama’s personalities Romney’s polite but very fluent and decisive simply overmatched Obama’s contemplative style – as the moments of this debate drew on, it was becoming clear that the evening belonged to Romney, completely.
Indeed, the CNN flash polls showed 67 percent believe Romney won the debate, while just 25 percent said Obama won the Denver debate. And a CBS poll of undecided voters showed Romney leading Obama by 46 to 22 percent on the question of who won the debate, with 32 percent saying they were tied.
Watching the debate on CNN (I stayed up till three in the morning here, in Netanya, so you won’t have to), it seemed that every aspect of last night’s duel was going Romney’s way. Take the clock, for instance: as the night wore on, President Obama was clocking more than 4 minutes of talking over Governor Romney, and that time was accumulating, slowly but surely, in small increments, from the opening minute. As much as the moderator, PBS’s Jim Lehrer, tried to keep things even, Obama was getting away with more and more time bits than his opponent.
At one point, about a third of the way into the match, Obama went on talking uninterrupted for better than two minutes—an eternity in these debates—and the 78-year-old Lehrer was unable to control him, telling him afterward, “you’re way over the two minutes,” raising an apologetic smile from the president.
Yet instead of complaining, as some have done in previous presidential debates, Romney let it slide. He didn’t demand equal time, he simply pretended he didn’t mind these fouls, which, strangely enough, made him look more presidential than the president. And because of this tiny show of magnanimity, the clocks CNN was using to mark each candidate’s time use became a finger that pointed at the cheating debater.
If this was a plan—then the governor’s campaign team deserves the bonuses he just gave them. I tend to think it was a rare view into the two men’s personalities, in which Romney came across more stylish and composed.
That – the composure in face of Mr. Cool who, back in 2008 reduced Senator McCain to looking like your angry elderly neighbor who wouldn’t return the baseball that fell into his roses – that was worth staying up to watch.
On the substance, which I believe has only a minor importance in these clashes, Romney seemed a little more on top of his own facts and figures. Some of his arguments were hard to accept – for instance, that private insurance companies with a bigger overhead cost than that of a government agency, plus the requirement to show a profit, would be able to offer cheaper health insurance.
But while Obama scored obvious points in the eyes of this registered Democrat, he was stabbed unexpectedly by Romney when Obama boasted that his administration has made $716 billion in cuts of waste in the Medicare program. Romney claimed those were not well thought out cuts in specific areas of waste but an across the board slashing of the Medicare budget, with the trimmed funds used to finance Obamacare.