Presidential debate #1: America’s eyes glaze over

Remember what I said earlier this week, in the piece below this one, about what President Obama and Governor Romney needed to do, and needed to avoid tonight? None of that happened.

When I wrote the piece below, about how Romney could win tonight’s debate, it undoubtedly wasn’t what my favorite Democratic friends wanted to hear. Neither will this piece.

I said in the debate preview that Romney needed to change the game, since he’s the guy who’s behind. Romney failed to do it.

I also said in the preview that Obama needed to avoid getting to explainy, and he failed to avoid it spectacularly. I also said he needed to connect with voters at an emotional level, and he didn’t do that either.

Luckily for the President, Romney matched Obama explainy-for-explainy, and together, arm-in-arm, both candidates happily dove, over the decomposing corpse of moderator Jim Lehrer, right off the explanation cliff.

I’ll be blunt: this was the most boring, and least effectively moderated, Presidential debate ever.

Ted Delisi, Harvey Kronberg, and me on the set at YNN Austin, watching the debate and waiting for the post-debate show, in our desperate fight to stay awake

Obama’s objective was clearly to put Romney on the defensive, and Obama succeeded – the entire night was essentially about Romney. But Romney comported himself well enough, and in hindsight his ability to do so was entirely predictable. Obama’s strategy put Romney right into Romney’s comfort zone, where he has the most experience: debating on defense. He got that experience during the approximately 1,348,499 debates held during the Republican nominating process. Since he was the perceived frontrunner during most of those debates, he got accustomed to debates being a referrendum on Romney’s proposals.

To be fair, Obama’s strategy might have been more effective if Lehrer, the moderator, had managed not to doze off along with the rest of America. From Obama supporters’ perspective, whoppers were being hooked, but not reeled in. One need look no farther than the first excruciating 15 minutes of the debate, in which an extended discussion of Romney’s tax plan was batted around. It became more apparent than ever that the answer to the core question – does Romney’s tax plan balance, or not – is dependent on the component of the plan Romney has steadfastly declined to clarify: which tax deductions will he eliminate?

This would have been a perfect time for Mr. Lehrer to return from the restroom where he was taking a leak and simply press Romney for an answer about which tax deductions would get axed. If Romney had declined to answer, that would have been big news. If Romney had finally given a straight answer, that would have been even bigger news, and a pretty neat thing for Americans to know, I’m guessing. Or so you’d think. Lehrer also let Romney run away from his own tax plan without significant challenge.

You’d also think that in a 90 minute debate exclusively about domestic issues, Lehrer might have encouraged the candidates to devote a good 10-15 seconds or so on women. But if there was any discussion whatsoever on the issues associated with the largest gender gap for Republicans in recent political memory, I must have missed it…which would have been understandable since it was a challenge to stay awake.

I will say this for the President: he did lay out a clear-eyed, sober, level-headed case for himself, while Governor Romney was busy defending his proposals. But because both men said way too little and took way too much time saying it, the message was lost to television viewership which was undoubtedly plummeting by the minute as the boredom set in.

Make no mistake – I don’t believe this debate changed the game, so on that score Obama won, because he’s the man in the lead. But a man as gifted as Obama should have connected better, and wonked less. A journalist with the stature of Jim Lehrer shouldn’t have let both candidates muck around in the weeds without either of them covering any significant new ground. And on points that probably don’t change a thing, Romney did well tonight.