The Character Test in the 2012 Election

The Romney the world saw at last night’s debate — confident, enthusiastic about his ideas, hopeful and articulate — is no stranger to those fortunate enough to have heard him speak in person during the past year. I reported in this space on a primary campaign breakfast in November 2011 where Romney won me over. What changed last night emphatically was not Mitt Romney. What changed is that we finally got to see the real Mitt Romney. The Republican candidate, that is, defined himself against Barack Obama, rather than allowing an overwhelmingly hostile media to define him. And Barack Obama, alone on the stage with his opponent, stripped of teleprompter and fawning media, revealed himself to be a fearful, petulant, petty man. Not only did Romney win; Obama lost.

There has never been a presidential candidates’ debate on national television where the instant polls declared such a lopsided victory (3 to 1 in Romney’s favor according to CNN) — not Kennedy-Nixon, nor Reagan-Carter. Response to televised debates in the past split neatly down partisan lines, so much so that conventional wisdom states that presidential debates simply weren’t a factor in the election. The voters watched the debate and assigned a better performance to the candidate they liked beforehand. Al Gore’s sighs or Richard Nixon’s sweats influenced the electoral outcome in legend more than in fact.

Just because debates weren’t decisive in the past doesn’t mean that this one won’t be decisive now. The most lopsided factor in this election is the character of the candidates. What we saw last night is a unique and unprecedented event in American political history. We have never had a president like Barack Obama, and the American public got its first peek at the man behind the curtain.

Barack Obama is a narcissist and a sociopath, with the skills of persuasion that children abandoned by their parents learn as a survival mechanism. In the adoring light of the liberal media, Obama reflected power and self-confidence — so long as he was in control, and stood in front of the teleprompter. The real Barack Obama is the one who cowered in the Oval Office protected by his Praetorian guard, who declined to hold cabinet meetings or meet with Republican leaders: McBama surrounded by the weird sisters, Valerie Jarrett, Susan Rice and Michelle. Obama’s greatest strength always has been his greatest weakness, potentially a catastrophic one: he manipulates so effectively because he has a compulsion to be in control. When he knows that he is not in control, Obama is paralyzed. Absent last night were the easy rhetorical flourishes and rock star pose of 2008.

When he is not in control, as in last night’s debate, he freezes. Obama’s stumbling delivery and poor body language betrayed a frightened and enraged man who desperately wanted to be somewhere else than on a public stage, mano a mano with Mitt Romney. The most pertinent question to ask the Obama campaign now is which psychiatrist they have put on retainer.