The general consensus, as I'm sure you have heard, was that President Obama didn't exactly captivate the country in his debut debate with Mitt Romney. The Republicans' begrudged Golden Boy positively shined in the thin Denver air while Obama just looked like he needed a good night's rest. People who were casting Mr. Romney in the same light as a carrier of the Bubonic plague a few short months ago just couldn't say enough about how far he has come.
I had thought, going into the debate, that if the GOP was counting on a one on one between the two men to pull their foundering candidate out of his tailspin, it was a futile hope. Mr. Obama is the most skilled and persuasive public speaker since Ronald Reagan learned his lines and Obama did it without Warner Bros. Mr. Romney's source of animation usually seems powered by four rundown AA batteries.
For weeks leading up to the debate, the GOP was commending Obama's oratorical skill. The president is a modern day Daniel Webster. That wasn't done out of a sudden burst of affection or respect. God forbid. It was laying the groundwork for a debacle if Romney remained in his cardboard candidate mode ("Well, we said that Obama was a great debater, but what about those jobs?").
So, in the sense that Mr. Romney jolted everyone by the strength of his performance (and performance is a key word here), he should be commended. You might recall that Sarah Palin didn't make as big a fool out of herself as everyone expected she would in her debate with Joe Biden. That Obama wasn't good is true, but is "Romney wasn't as bad as we expected he would be" such a glowing tribute?
I wouldn't be surprised if Mr. Obama walked out onto that stage with too much confidence that the debate was going to be a cakewalk. He certainly had every reason to expect that, but he should have been savvy enough to consider the possibility that the master chefs whipping up their newest creation for American consumption had added a new secret ingredient. Even a spare tire looks delicious if you ladle enough frosting onto it.
Paul Krugman dismissed the debates as theater pieces and, of course, he is right. But this is America in 2012 and an awful lot of people simply don't have time to look too far below the surface. They have to hope that the theater performance might have some connection with the reality of their own lives. People who have done nothing but present an expertly groomed façade to the public are more revered than accomplished professionals. That is why Kim Kardashian is on the cover of People magazine every other week and not Meryl Streep.
There are other aspects of theater that apply here, too. No one wants to pay for tickets to a murder mystery when the poster tells you who the killer is. The public's interest in the show (circus?) must have waned as Obama's lead became more pronounced and Mr. Romney's campaign began to look like one of those companies that Bain Capital swooped down upon.
The folks who benefit so lucratively from the contest -- or the appearance of a contest -- needed to do something to rev up the public's flagging interest. That isn't to say that, for one night, Mr. Romney didn't look more presidential than Obama. Romney always did look like a president out of MGM's casting department. But the wild overreaction to Obama's disappointing showing smacked more of a media attempt to inject some life back into a race that had become as dull and monotonous as one of its two participants.
The debates should not have changed anyone's mind about either candidate. Romney kept the self-satisfied smirks to a bearable minimum and Obama held onto to his nice guy image as if he was a torpedoed sailor clinging to debris, which at some points, he seemed to be.
More than any other aspect of his personality, this mania for ultra-politeness has proven to be his Achilles heel. It's a shame that keeping a public debate on a civil plane is such a detriment to effectiveness, but it is and it is a lesson Mr. Obama should have learned a long time ago. These are not inherently nice people he is up against despite David Brooks' constant reassurances.
The hoopla over the debate has achieved its goal. Obama's numbers are down and Romney's are up along with a revived public interest. It is not so different from what the contestants on "Dancing With the Stars" experience week after week. This isn't, however, a contest to decide which prefab celebrity gets a mirror ball. It could very well be the election that decides the course that this country takes in the foreseeable future. The people running the GOP show can spout their concern about small business and oppressive taxes and the unemployment rate and government regulations and entitlements, but the bedrock concern for all of these worthy issues is rooted in a maniacal protection for the best interests of less than one percent of the population.
Listen to what Romney is really saying or, more precisely, listen to what he isn't saying. Everything is going to be okay when he and the wunderkind from Wisconsin take over because he says it is. That might fly in the Bain boardroom, but the American public had better demand a fuller accounting. And the public had better start to feel a distinct chill running up its spine when Mr. Romney pulls one of his "I'm not going to tell you how" maneuvers.
If Mr. Romney thought, for one fleeting moment, that actually explaining how he plans to transform America would garner him some votes, don't you think he might consider letting us in on the strategy? So, what does "I'm not going to tell you now" shout out loud to the middle-class in the United States? What it tells you is far more revealing than anything Mr. Romney condescended to actually tell us during the debate.
Alden Graves is a reviewer and columnist for the Banner.