David Rothkopf: Obama blew it at debate, but it's a useful wake-up call for him to get in game
He says other winners include media, which now has a story, and Romney's prep team
Big winner, he says, is the electorate, which got to see the candidates on their feet
Rothkopf: It's one event and still four weeks for candidates to make case; a lot can happen
Editor’s Note: David Rothkopf is CEO and editor-at-large of the FP Group, publishers of Foreign Policy Magazine, and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
To say Barack Obama stunk it up on stage at the University of Denver in the first presidential debate would not be an overstatement. He was as limp as day-old ramen. But to focus on Obama’s muted, spluttering performance or to characterize the debate as a high point for Mitt Romney that was as vital for his languishing campaign as it was overdue would be to miss the other important stories of winners and losers from Wednesday’s 90 minute face-off.
One clear loser, for example, was Obama’s campaign team. They have chosen a defensive campaign course for the past couple of months based on their assumption that they had the election in the bag. They had replaced Bill Clinton’s “it’s the economy, stupid” with Hippocrates’ “first, do no harm” as their campaign motto.
They had prohibited senior officials from within the administration to go on national television without White House approval because they felt that the benefits normally associated with multiple high-level messengers supporting a president’s campaign were outweighed by the risks that somebody might offer up a gaffe. Leave those to Romney, they thought. He will beat himself.
Until 9 p.m. ET on Wednesday, that approach seemed to be working. But within minutes of the beginning of the debate, it was clear that the president was facing an energized, well-prepared challenger – one who had been surrounded by people willing to criticize him and offer suggestions for how to do better. Meanwhile, the country’s chief executive found him suffering from one of the risks of incumbency: the side effects of living in a bubble of sycophants in the White House.
- Did you miss the first presidential debate? You can watch the full event online on CNN.com.
It is a not very well-kept secret in Washington that the president is a supremely self-confident man surrounded by a handful of equally self-satisfied handlers. Inside that bubble, the atmosphere is equal parts rarified air and arrogance. As a consequence, the president did not prepare as well as he should have for the debate, and no one dared to push him harder.
After Wednesday’s drubbing, however, the president – who is also an earnest, exceptionally intelligent and hard-working man – will not make the same mistake twice. Consequently, we have two other winners to cite.
One is the president himself. He got a wake-up call at the best possible time – while he had a good lead and early enough that he can use future debates to reassert his leadership and his reputation for being a great communicator.
A more important winner, however, is the typical voter. Not only did they finally get relief from the incessant geyser of shallow, mean-spirited campaign propaganda from their televisions, but they got a chance to see the candidates for more than a few soundbites in a message that they approved.
Once again, despite the prevarications and the semi-truths, the zingers and the stumbles, listening to two intelligent, committed candidates for 90 minutes offered more illumination than the preceding two years of this campaign added up. But better, because the challenger did so well, they are likely to see both candidates upping their game in the coming weeks. They are likely to tune in to the next debates. They are likely to have a clearer view of the momentous choice they are being asked to make.
This elevation of the next phase of the campaign – and Romney’s credibility – is also a big win for the media. It’s no longer the runaway race it looked like before Wednesday night. It’s a story again. Were they wrong about Romney? If it sells newspapers and draws eyeballs, they hope so. Being wrong is nowhere near as bad as being ignored.
(I say this having a little skin in the game. I wrote a column Monday for Foreign Policy saying the race was over. I still think Obama will win; the gender gap is too big – even though Obama failed to make more of the woeful GOP record on women’s issues during last night’s domestic policy debate. And significant gaps have emerged in key swing states. But I’ll admit it, I’m nervous about my prediction. Two more performances like last night, and Obama could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.)
Romney’s team and his debate prep opponent Rob Portman are also winners. As skillful and confident as Romney was, his strength was that he was very, very well-prepped. He had studied hard, seemed to have facts or reasonable facsimiles of them at his fingertips and fluidly moved from key point to key point.
Also, thanks to this performance, the GOP money machine and party establishment are going to lean into a little thing you might call “the audacity of hope.” Had Romney faltered, they might have ditched him and refocused on congressional races. Now, the big bucks will continue to flow.
Almost certainly, Michelle Obama was also a loser. Her 20th anniversary celebration after the debate couldn’t have been too much fun. Similarly, the people who had been hoping to meet with the president and vice president before their next debates and whose appointments will be canceled to make time for more debate prep are could consider themselves victims of Mitt’s big night.
Jim Lehrer can’t be too happy with the prevailing view that as a moderator, he ended up as road kill. And it was win-lose for the Twitterverse. The event was the most tweeted political event in the (short) history of Twitter. And it also brought out the very worst in the snark-saturated medium.
But in the end, for all the winners and losers who are celebrating or sobbing in the wake of Wednesday’s exchanges, it is important to remember that this was just one debate and that over the next four weeks, there will be three more, plus hundreds of campaign appearances, gaffes and unexpected developments at home and overseas that will likely overshadow this one set piece.
In other words, it is tempting but dangerous to read too much into this debate – but fair and, yes, exciting to note this was just the sort of twist this tedious, small-ball campaign needed.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Rothkopf