I had feared going into tonight’s debate on foreign policy that the President might fare as poorly as a draw, because even as he was winning in the second debate last week, he didn’t do a particularly great job explaining himself when the topic turned to foreign policy then. It was mostly because of Governor Romney’s blunder on precisely when Obama first termed the attack in Libya “terrorism,” and moderator Candy Crowley’s assist on that question, that people weren’t talking about it later. Instead, they were talking about Romney being wrong. Again.
But my fears of a draw were for nothing, because Obama came loaded for bear, hitting Romney again and again on Romney’s incoherent positions, leaving Romney reeling on his heels for the first full 30 minutes of the 90 minute debate. Obama was not only more in command, but he had the lion’s share of the memorable dingers certain to be re-played over the next few days.
Obama was also first out of the chute to turn a debate slated to be 100 percent foreign policy into a discussion about domestic policy, which was admittedly just fine with Romney. But on that front as well, Obama edged out Romney with his command of the issues and the agressiveness of his attacks on Romney’s ever-varying positions.
The most puzzling thing about the debate is why the exact same Mitt Romney showed up this week as the Mitt Romney who showed up last week. Romney lost that debate, and this week’s performance should have been an opportunity for course corrections.
It would be difficult to over-state the importance of Obama winning this last debate. Obama losing the first of the three proved how damaging it is for an incumbent President to be caught napping – nobody was ever even talking about this being a serious race until Romney bested him their first time out. But Democrats breathed a sigh of relief when the Obama who showed up tonight was the same Obama who showed up last week. He was eager to very forcefully defend his policies, and equally eager to define Romney’s lack of consistency before Romney could innoculate himself against the charge.
More local to Texas, guess who else is breathing a little easier now? Democrats on the same ballot running in tough real estate. Wendy Davis in the Senate. State House members like Craig Eiland in Galveston, Joe Moody in El Paso, or Donna Howard in Austin. Congressional candidates like Pete Gallego or Nick Lampson. Those Dems don’t need Obama to win in their districts, and in some of those examples, Obama certainly won’t. But what those down-ballot Democrats can’t have is Obama getting creamed in their districts, creating such a drag on their own races that voters don’t even consider the individual Democrats running down-ballot. That’s what happened across the state two years ago, which was key to creating the Republican supermajority in the state House. And Obama besting Romney in the last two of their three debates probably swings hundreds of state legislative districts across the country, including some in Texas.
Tonight’s debate moderator Bob Schieffer is probably breathing easier as well, since he may have become the only moderator in the 2012 debate season who is all-but-unassailable in his performance tonight. He kept complete command of the event, and neither played it safe nor strayed into territory which partisans on either side could credibly criticize as rationale for why their little perfect angel of a candidate “would have” won.
There’s no doubt that it was the Obama’s night, and the President very much needed another one, like the one he had last week. Even after Romney’s first debate win created a Romney bump, the electoral map still looked daunting for the Republicans – but at least they could see a glimmer of hope.
But since this debate was the last opportunity for Romney to fuel a surge for his campaign (barring breaking news neither campaign can control), things may start returning to the bleakness Republicans were beginning to feel before the debate season.
All-in-all, it was a bad night for Romney, at the worst possible timing. Looking forward, watch out of wild-ass charges coming from Republicans aimed at Obama. It may well be the only play they have left to make.