A Slam-Dunk Election Snapshot
President Barack Obama is a self-acknowledged basketball aficionado. He adores the game, going so far as to have a court installed on the White House grounds.
Employing language familiar to basketball fans, the first presidential debate of the 2012 election cycle resulted in a slam dunk for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. President Obama was left gaping at half court, stuck to the floor in confused wonder at the clarity and dominance of the Romney performance.
This outcome is stunning on several levels. First, who really thought Mitt Romney would have a complete grasp of facts, figures and programs based on the last few weeks of campaign gaffs, stumbles and cotton-mouthed babbling?
Lately, Mitt Romney has come across like the Richie Rich stereotype painted by the Obama campaign. Remember that little video from last spring where Governor Romney wrote off 47% of the electorate as lazy, shiftless welfare dependents?
Governor Romney seems like a stiff and stilted national candidate, especially in those little made-for-television fast food stops. It's quite obvious the guy doesn't eat at Chipotle when he seems awed by the concept of an over-stuffed burrito and guacamole.
Why do staffers insist on putting candidates in goofy positions that highlight their weaknesses? Remember Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis wearing an Army helmet and riding in a tank? He looked like a little kid, as the helmet was at least two hat sizes too big. Or how about President George H. W. Bush marveling at the bar code reader at the grocery checkout?
So, instead of the stiff and distant rich guy, debate watchers got the cool, factual and decisive corporate executive. It was easy to imagine Mitt Romney striding into a boardroom, picking apart a power-point presentation of income and expenses to get to the bottom line of what ails a company.
We saw the savvy and knowledgeable titan of equity investment, the guy who can shake your hand, smile, pat you on the back and then help you guide your failing company back to profitability.
On the other side of the stage, we got a completely different view of President Obama. The cool demeanor, the insightful perspective and the professorial lecture style normally attributed to the president was nowhere to be found at this first presidential debate.
In fact, he just plain seemed lost. Sarcastic pundits and rabid partisans will fault the lack of a teleprompter. The president is oft-criticized for his dependence on the projected image as a crutch with the details.
A more likely set of causes involves both Governor Romney and President Obama. For Mitt Romney, his grasp of policy detail, his subtle sense of humor, and his insistence on pushing back against the president led to a shift in perception.
President Obama seemed unprepared for having his statements directly and personally challenged. It happens a lot in presidential debates. Presidents are surrounded by people who are paid to tell them they're right. In point of fact, the "bubble" surrounding the Oval Office actually discourages dissension; the structure of the home field advantage stifles debate.
Standing as equals on that stage removed the trappings of office familiar to the president that offer comfort and cover. No official seal, no adoring fans, and no teleprompter.
The equalizer in a debate is the practice sessions. In Governor Romney's case, there were a number of rehearsals featuring Senator Rob Portman (R., OH). Mr. Portman is a practiced debate stand-in, having worked on previous GOP presidential debates. As a former Director of the Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush, Senator Portman has hands-on knowledge that can translate to top-notch budget preparation.
President Obama, by comparison, employed Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry as the Romney stand-in. Mr. Kerry was not necessarily effective as a debater himself, he really didn't make much of a dent in his debates against former President George W. Bush.
A campaign is neither a success nor a failure on the strength or weakness of one debate. One debate is a snapshot, just one of many factors that impact voter preference.
This cycle, the strong technical and personal performance of Governor Romney allows his campaign to refocus the dialogue away from his previous flubs. While the Obama campaign will no doubt pick apart details like the loss of tax exemptions for high income earners, or the increase in defense spending set against the deficit backdrop, Team Romney will highlight the best moments of the first debates.
October 11 (this Thursday) will bring us the vice presidential debate. If Rep. Paul Ryan (WI) can duplicate Governor Romney's success against Vice President Joe Biden, the shift in the dynamics of the race will be significant. It will establish a new political momentum, and the 6-7% of the truly undecided among the electorate will really take notice.
Then we might really be talking about slam dunks!