Charles Dharapak, Associated Press
One large, strategic question at the center of the presidential race: In order to beat President Obama, does Mitt Romney need to be an exceptional candidate or merely an acceptable one?
For much of the campaign, Romney and his team have operated according to the acceptability theory. Obama, in this view, is a vulnerable incumbent who will eventually be undone by a stagnant economy. With 54 percent of likely voters already agreeing that Obama does not deserve re-election, Romney (the argument goes) just needs to be a viable alternative — an imaginable president — in order to defeat an incumbent in the process of failing.
Romney's convention speech was the triumph of this theory. It was designed for reassurance, not persuasion. It emphasized Romney's admirable background and values. It was almost entirely devoid of policy arguments, unexpected outreach or effective attacks. It was unambitious for a reason — because acceptability seemed the safest policy.
But the approach didn't work. Following the party conventions, it became clear that Obama has a hidden source of electoral buoyancy. Many Americans don't fully blame him for economic conditions and seem resigned to a new normal of high unemployment and stagnant growth. It is a historical paradox of the first order — the candidate of hope made viable by diminished expectations. But Obama, it is now evident, will not fall by force of gravity.
This was the broader significance of Romney's performance in the first debate. It was more than an excellent technical performance. It was an admission that acceptability is not a sufficient strategy. For the first time in the general election, Romney seemed to realize that the presidency will not be awarded by default — that defeating Obama will require exceptional skills, strategy and ambition. And all were there when Romney needed them.
Romney was on the offensive from first to last, dominating the tone, content and flow of the debate. This seemed more than aggressiveness; something approaching authority. Romney's attacks were genially relentless. Instead of merely criticizing Obamacare or the Dodd-Frank financial legislation, he dissected them. He fired statistics like shotgun pellets — 23 million unemployed, one in six in poverty, 50 percent of college graduates can't find jobs. His critique was organized by a memorable theme — "trickle-down government." (Obama's apparent theme — a "new economic patriotism" — went entirely unexplained.)
Romney's effective indictment of Obama's record managed something difficult and important. It simultaneously steadied the confidence of Republicans in their own candidate while allowing Romney to adopt a more moderate, bipartisan tone on taxes, education and entitlements. This is politics successfully conducted at a high degree of difficulty.
Romney did not announce or emphasize unexpected policy — which is generally not the purpose of debates. But his summaries of existing approaches were crisp and comprehensive. He not only pronounced, he explained. And he employed vignettes like political chess moves — a little hopelessness in Missouri, a little despair in Wisconsin, a little disillusionment in New Hampshire. Romney constantly and seamlessly humanized his arguments. He even outlined a philosophy of government that includes compassion for the needy — probably a fragment of his prepared response to the 47 percent challenge that never came. If women voters in battleground states were watching, they didn't see the stereotype they expected.
Romney prepared for the debate intensely, and it showed — which means it didn't show. He had not only practiced his material but internalized and mastered it, leaving a composite impression of ease and authenticity. He seemed eager to make the points he was primed to make — pleased to be finally answering months of accumulated attack ads.
- 10 children's movies with rumored political...
- Obama shows his funny side while promoting...
- My view: SB54 will politically and culturally...
- In our opinion: Obama's immigration...
- It doesn't have to be hard for liberalism to...
- A Hobson's choice: Religious freedom in the...
- Charles Krauthammer: The president's foreign...
- Letter: End daylight saving time
- Charles Krauthammer: The president's... 59
- In our opinion: Obama's immigration... 44
- Letter: End daylight saving time 41
- It doesn't have to be hard for... 38
- In our opinion: Boy Scouts of America... 35
- Was Hillary right to compare Putin to... 34
- A Hobson's choice: Religious freedom in... 32
- Letter: A 'dying' document 28