Well, Romney. It’s wasn’t the slam-dunk of the first debate, partly because Romney wandered a bit on the Libya and Islamic-extremist questions, but mostly because Obama was actually present and accounted for this time, focused intently on the man who is just about to succeed him as president of the United States. He clearly didn’t like being there any more than he did the first time around (or the second, for that matter), but at least he was focused. The prospect of hanging in a fortnight, as Dr. Johnson observed, does concentrate the mind. Obama’s mind was concentrated, which was an advantage, but voters got to see what he was really like, what he really has planned for us, which was perhaps less of an advantage. Instapundit has a good roundup describing the president’s performance: snarky, condescending, peevish, and small, with a little detour called “Wrong Again, Mr. President,” department of apologies by the president of the United States about America to the rest of the world.

Probably Romney’s single best line last night was “Attacking me is not an agenda,” but his more devastating responses centered on two large issues: the president’s record, which has been an unmitigated litany of failure, and his lack of a coherent plan going forward.

“Forward,” of course, is the president’s campaign slogan, and Romney adroitly turned that around: Yes, we need to go forward, but another Obama term would mean going back to the failed policies that brought you a $16 trillion federal debt ($5.5 trillion added all by his lonesome self in less than fours years), high unemployment, record deficits, record numbers of people on food stamps, high energy prices, etc., etc.

For his part, the president returned again and agin to two themes: 1. it was Bush’s fault (with Dick Cheney thrown in at one point to frighten the children), where by “it” I mean whatever problem is at hand, foreign or domestic: it’s  all Bush’s fault, unless there was a success, in which case, the glory is all Obama’s; and 2. we can solve the economic crisis by asking “the wealthy” to pay a little bit more.

Blaming George Bush for anything at this point, four years on, is simply embarrassing, so I will pass over that. But it is worth spending a moment on the president’s aria about “the rich.”
First of all, as it has been demonstrated again and again, you could take all of the income of everyone who was truly rich — tax ’em at 100% — and you’d manage to scrap together enough dough to run the government for no more than a few months. There just aren’t enough rich folks out there.

The president knows that. So why does he keep saying that if only we raised taxes on the rich we could bring some sanity to the mess that is the U.S. budget (not that we actually have a budget these days)? One thing, which he does not dilate on, is that “rich” is an elastic term. It might mean folks like Warren Buffet. But it might also mean people who make $250,000 a year, or even, as Joe Biden suggested during the last campaign, $150,000 a year. Even so, there would not be enough money to go around, but it would accomplish one of the president’s biggest if seldom-stated goals: the redistribution of wealth. That’s what he is really after, that’s what, at the end of the day, his economic policy is chiefly about: not growth, not the creation of wealth, but the redistribution of wealth. This is what he calls “fairness.” Others might call it legalized theft.

Romney could have honed in more sharply, or at least in a more protracted fashion, on these themes — the president’s dismal economic record, his lack of an alternative, his tour around the world apologizing for America. He did it, he did it sharply, but he then backed off and did not follow up. Perhaps it was a sense of compassion that kept him from hammering the points home. Still, I think most viewers got the point. Romney summed up the take-away from last night’s debate a couple of months ago when he responded to the president’s refrain that he had inherited a terrible economic mess. Yes, Romney acknowledged, you did. Then you promptly made it worse. That’s the fundamental reality that was on view last night, and that’s why I am more confident than ever that Romney will win and win big.

More: Romney Comes Out of Final Debate with New Poll Lead and an Arsenal of New Ads