Editor's note: William J. Bennett, a CNN contributor, is the author of "The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood." He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.
(CNN) -- In Hans Christian Andersen's classic fairy tale, "The Emperor's New Clothes," two swindlers promise an emperor new, beautiful clothes that are invisible to anyone who is unfit for their position, unjust or stupid.
The clothes don't actually exist, but the emperor pretends to see them anyway so it is not thought that he is stupid or unfit to be emperor. His followers and ministers do the same. It takes an innocent little child to say what no one else is willing to say: The emperor doesn't have any clothes on.
In the first presidential debate last week, the president had his emperor's clothes moment in front of more than 60 million people.
All the bright, beautiful robes of his presidency were reduced to nothing. He was unprepared, listless, and as James Carville said, he didn't look like he even wanted to be there. Clint Eastwood's empty chair, which earned the ire of liberal pundits, now seems ever so prophetic.
But Andersen's tale doesn't end there. When the little boy exposes him, the emperor turns a blind eye and says, "This procession has got to go on." Andersen concludes the story, "So he walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the train that wasn't there at all."
The procession went on this past weekend with the president's noblemen, Robert Gibbs, David Axelrod and Paul Krugman, all taking to the Sunday shows to insist that the real grievance was not President Obama's debate performance, not that he had no clothes, but that no one is calling Mitt Romney on his lies. Ah, the modern day twist -- the child is a liar!
The problems in labeling Romney a liar are several. First, he did not lie. His tax plan would not raise taxes on middle-class families. In fact, Princeton economist Harvey Rosen says the Obama administration is misrepresenting his study on Romney's tax plan.
Second, calling Romney a liar blatantly ignores the reality of the debate: the president's missing clothes and his terrible performance. While more than 60 million people witnessed the debate, the only people ignoring the president's performance are his advisers and his closest ideologues.
For four years Obama has been cosseted and insulated by the friendly mainstream media. His lack of interest in taking hard questions from the media and the media's lack of interest in asking hard question showed during the debate. He was unprepared for Romney's aggressiveness and forcefulness. One can now only wonder how prepared he has been for the presidency these past four years?
Third, if Romney was such a blatant liar, why didn't Obama say anything about it on stage during the debate? Obama couldn't put together a cogent defense of his own policies, let alone go on the offensive against Romney, which leaves little substance or truth to the case that Romney is a liar. Or as Andrew Sullivan wrote, "How do you erase that imprinted first image from public consciousness: a president incapable of making a single argument or even a halfway decent closing statement?"
Fourth, the allegations of lies won't stick. As several commentators have said, Romney's brilliant debate performance obliterated $100 million in negative ads against him. The Obama administration's caricature of Romney, as well as much of the mainstream media's, as a vulture capitalist monster who only cares about the rich, was shattered. The problem with caricaturing someone is that the caricature better fit. On debate night it didn't, and it won't fit going forward.
Just how good was Romney's debate performance? In a CNN/ORC International Poll conducted right after the debate, 67% of debate watchers said Romney won. In the most recent Pew Research poll taken after the debate, Romney now leads Obama 49% to 45% among likely voters. Just last month, Romney trailed by 8 points among this group. That's an incredible 12-point swing less than one month away from the election.
Romney's supporters are more engaged by 15 points, and his favorable rating now surpasses Obama's for the first time, 50-49. On the question of which candidate would best "improve the job situation," Romney now leads Obama by 8 points. In September, Obama was winning likely female voters by 18 points. Now, Obama and Romney are tied among women at 47, a remarkable comeback for Romney.
Obama is reeling. His campaign is against the ropes. But if they think calling Romney a serial liar will make up the ground lost in the first debate, Obama may be even more unprepared for this presidential campaign than anyone thought.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William J. Bennett.