o what happened when the two presidential contenders finally met? Were there lucid, eloquent declamations of lofty philosophical principles? Did Obama deliver the death blow to his floundering opponent? Did Romney uncork any of the zingers his team had been preparing?
What we got was much more anticlimactic. President Obama got a little wordy and seemed a little bored. Mitt Romney came out swinging (uh, relative to a bizarrely laconic Obama, that is), but also said he agreed with the President in principle a whole lot. Jim Lehrer, the debate moderator, seemed to lose the thread in some places. Obama flubbed the delivery of some of his own snark and decided to drone on about the finer points of his signature healthcare plan. Romney told Lehrer that he liked him — and Big Bird! — but that he would cut funding to public broadcasting. Both the candidates ignored Lehrer’s entreaties to wrap up their soliloquies. It had the feel of one of those interminable, overhyped boxing matches where the fighters hold each other the whole time: not a whole lot happened, and everyone watching was left trying to figure out how to process it when it was over.
Although the pundit class seems to be declaring Romney the winner, none of it may matter much electorally since the import of presidential debates in determining the outcome of elections is way, way overstated. The legendary face-off between Nixon and Kennedy in 1960 supposedly won the election when the audience watching on TV supposedly broke for the telegenic young senator from Massachusetts over the pallid, sweaty Nixon. But Kennedy wound up winning the election by the teensiest of margins — less than a quarter of one percent — so how do we even know the debate was the difference-maker? Hell, viewers thought John Kerry crushed President George W. Bush in their first debate and we all know how that turned out.
But in terms of the way the last few weeks are covered by the news media, Thursday could make all the difference. Last month, the main media narrative for Romney was that his campaign was reeling from all kinds of self-inflicted wounds. His response to the attacks on American embassies in the Gulf region was widely derided. His aides were backbiting in Politico. Mother Jones dropped that 47 percent bombshell. You could see the snowball effect in the response to his appearance on Univision, when he was wearing tons of makeup that made his skin darker. It probably shouldn’t have become a thing, but it did, since the story arc for Romney was now that he was both feckless and hapless. Hence Romney went on TV in brownface to talk to Latinos!
The potential electoral landslide was sapping all the suspense from the race (the widely respected statistician Nate Silver gave Obama an 86 percent chance of winning the election before the Denver face-off) Romney’s solid-enough showing might be all the fuel necessary to start the “Romney’s big comeback!” storyline. The truth is, the race was already tightening in the days before the debate, and Obama’s formidable leads in the crucial states of Florida and Ohio were starting to close. Expect that theme to pick up steam now on cable talkers since there’s a modicum of drama now.