The first 2012 presidential debate won’t be remembered for any bombastic lines in the vein of Ronald Reagan or Lloyd Bentsen, or the perspiration visual of Richard Nixon.
In fact, the most-talked about takeaways from the evening will most likely be Big Bird and Jim Lehrer — both of whom had parody Twitter accounts and thousands of followers before the 90-minute debate even ended.
But tonight’s debate had even liberal pundits complaining about the performance of the president.
“I can’t even follow him half the time. Either exhausted, over-briefed … or just flailing. He’s throwing debate away,” tweeted Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Beast.
“Obama made a lot of great points tonight. Unfortunately, most of them were for Romney,” tweeted comedian Bill Maher.
Even Vanity Fair tweeted, “Has Obama ever been this off his game?”
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney had an awkward moment where he said he didn’t support the Simpson-Bowles debt-reduction plan, but President Obama should have. Former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), half of the president’s appointed deficit-reduction commission, was in the audience at the University of Denver.
“Simpson-Bowles, the president should have grabbed that,” Romney said in response to a question from Lehrer on whether he supported the commission’s recommendations.
“No, I mean, do you support Simpson-Bowles?” Lehrer pressed.
“I have my own plan. It’s not the same as Simpson-Bowles. But in my view, the president should have grabbed it,” Romney said.
Obama argued that he had snatched up the plan and tweaked it to his liking before presenting it to Congress — but if there was one thing that brought left and right together tonight, it was the general agreement from professional and armchair pundits alike that Obama wasn’t arguing for much of anything at this debate, never mind fighting passionately for it.
Obama’s talking points, honed in debate practice sessions with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) acting as Romney, were largely retreads of his campaign stump speeches, though less finely tuned. While Romney gave the predictable bemused looks toward Obama and the president responded to Romney’s points with some characteristic smirks, Obama’s attitude out of the gate was oddly more contrite than cocky.
In this seemingly Herculean effort to remain measured and not display an off-putting attitude toward Romney, Obama came across as bland and dispassionate.
On what should have been a warring point on entitlement reform, the president said, “I suspect that, on Social Security, we’ve got a somewhat similar position. Social Security is structurally sound. It’s going to have to be tweaked the way it was by Ronald Reagan and Speaker — Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill. But it is — the basic structure is sound.”
Totally absent were the expected hit lines on the 47 percent, the Cayman Islands, and even Obama’s “economic patriotism” meme tailored to moderates that he seemed to have been saving for the home stretch of the campaign and put into use within the past week to describe his fairness doctrine.
But the attitude that came across in Obama’s “you’re likable enough” comment directed at Hillary Clinton four years ago was actually directed at Lehrer this time. When the moderator told the president that his two minutes were up, Obama snapped at Lehrer, “No, I think — I had five seconds before you interrupted me.”
Romney fired a volley in Lehrer’s direction in talking about PBS funding.
“I’m sorry, Jim, I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS, I love Big Bird. Actually like you, too. But I’m not going to — I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for. That’s number one,” Romney said.
“I guess Romney forgot how to get to Sesame Street!” tweeted DC councilman Marion Barry, who was watching the debate at DNC headquarters “along with other loyal Democrats.”
Tonight’s debate consisted of segments on the economy, entitlements, health care, and governance.
“Governor Romney has said he wants to repeal Dodd-Frank. And, you know, I appreciate and it appears we’ve got some agreement that a marketplace to work has to have some regulation. But in the past, Governor Romney has said he just want to repeal Dodd- Frank, roll it back,” Obama said in one of the lightweight sparring sessions.
“And so the question is: Does anybody out there think that the big problem we had is that there was too much oversight and regulation of Wall Street? Because if you do, then Governor Romney is your candidate. But that’s not what I believe.”
“Sorry, but that’s just not — that’s just not the facts. Look, we have to have regulation on Wall Street,” Romney responded. “That’s why I’d have regulation. But I wouldn’t designate five banks as too big to fail and give them a blank check. That’s one of the unintended consequences of Dodd-Frank. It wasn’t thought through properly. We need to get rid of that provision because it’s killing regional and small banks. They’re getting hurt.”
Obama did, however, predictably offer praise for RomneyCare as the prelude to ObamaCare.
“The irony is that we’ve seen this model work really well in Massachusetts, because Governor Romney did a good thing, working with Democrats in the state to set up what is essentially the identical model and as a consequence people are covered there,” the president said. “It hasn’t destroyed jobs. And as a consequence, we now have a system in which we have the opportunity to start bringing down costs, as opposed to just leaving millions of people out in the cold.”
Romney fired back that health-care reform was forged from bipartisan consensus in his state. “Instead of bringing America together and having a discussion on this important topic, you pushed through something that you and Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid thought was the best answer and drove it through,” he said.
Key Obama staffers were mostly silent on Twitter toward the end of the debate, though his campaign issued several “fact check” press releases charging that Romney did not practice bipartisanship in Massachusetts, supports outsourcing, and wouldn’t create a job with his 5-point plan.
The Romney camp issued its own fact checks on high youth unemployment under Obama, tax hikes, and rebuttals to Democratic claims on Romney’s tax plan.
Obama’s deputy campaign manager, Stephanie Cutter, ceded on CNN tonight that Romney won “the style points.”
“But that’s not what has been dogging his campaign. What has been dogging his campaign are the policies that he doubled down on tonight,” she said. “…He spent a lot of time on defense on these policies. And you know what’s worse? He got testy about it. He got testy about being on defense, and I think that came across to the American people.”
Obama, Cutter said, “wasn’t speaking to the people in this room, he wasn’t speaking to the pundit class, he was speaking to the people at home.”
“I sometimes wondered if we even needed a moderator, because we had Mitt Romney,” she quipped.
Obama’s robotic performance and disuse of several hit points against Romney quickly led to speculation about whether it’s part of a greater strategy on the part of the campaign, banking on those who peak first falling first — even though early voting has already begun in many critical areas. Would a “thrown” debate rally the president’s 2008 base to the polls?
Next up is the vice presidential debate on Oct. 11, followed by a town hall-style debate Oct. 16 between Romney and Obama in New York, moderated by CNN’s Candy Crowley.
The final debate, focusing on foreign policy, is Oct. 22 in Florida. It will be identical to tonight’s debate in style and will be moderated by CBS’ Bob Schieffer.
“On debate: Lehrer seems over his head as moderator,” tweeted Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.).
“Missing Wolf Blitzer as moderator tonight,” tweeted Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.).