Mitt Romney executed a masterful end-run around Barack Obama last night, grabbing the political center that Obama has so deftly occupied for the past four years. And he did it by repeatedly lying about his policies. Furthermore, he changed the narrative of the election from ideology to a referendum on Obama's effectiveness. Basically, his argument last night, after flip-flopping on some major conservative points (see more below), was, "I'm really not that much different than President Obama, but with a Republican-led Congress, I'll be much more effective at executing. The President's had time to get stuff done and he's failed, so it's time to give me a shot at it."
Where did Romney flip-flop? On the DREAM Act, he said he would keep the order alive (the far right hates this law). On Obamacare, he said he'd keep all the good things he liked alive while getting rid of the law nonetheless (which would be impossible). He will stop Obama's $716B Medicare stripping and let seniors choose to have traditional Medicare if they want (a lie and a bureaucratic clusterfuck to run two different programs at the same time). And he would embrace Simpson-Bowles "with some tweaks here and there" to make it stronger (another lie).
The worst part of Romney's argument is that it could work. People can see the reasonableness of what he said, when in truth the extremist GOP has held the country hostage for four years by obstructionism and nihilism toward anything Obama wanted to do, and has then blamed Obama for it. Romney sold us on his plan, and it involved the most adept example of pandering that he has ever shown us. Those in the middle who haven't yet decided whom to elect might very well have been pulled to his side.
As for President Obama, I have never been more disappointed in him. Going into this debate, he had to have known that Romney would come in acting like he had nothing to lose. Say anything, who cares if it's true? Obama himself, meekly harping on Romney's $5 trillion tax cut, referenced the idea that if you say something enough times... And then he caved when Romney said his plan did not involve a $5 trillion tax cut, but would cut taxes for the middle class. Why didn't Obama say, eye to eye, face to face, "You and your running mate have talked about the vagaries of your plan for weeks. Americans are getting tired of your games; they want specifics. Give us all one specific example of how your plan is deficit-neutral." Why? Because that's not his character.
So does Obama's long game, the deftness of which has frequently been underestimated, entail letting fact-checkers and surrogates do his dirty work? Probably. In our 24-hour news cycle world, the next day will involve a phalanx of Democratic strategists and administration officials relentlessly slamming Romney's tax plan, his lies at the podium, his 47% statement, and his inability to relate to ordinary Americans. Could Romney have been more insincere than last night? Between the smug, bemused smile he pasted on his face, coupled with the vaguely uncomfortable look in his eyes, I got the sickest feeling that he didn't mean a word he said.
Worse, however, was Obama's refusal to look up while Romney was speaking directly to him. A president, especially one who has firm confidence in the good he has done, can ill afford not to meet his opponent's gaze. He came off as aloof, distracted, bored. That's the ticket: he bored me, and I sure as hell think he bored a lot more people too.
Damage has been done. Polls are showing a narrowing, and Nate Silver shows that Obama's reelection chances dropped from 74% to 64% overnight. Round two will need to be a very strong showing for the President. I truly don't think he can withstand another onslaught from Romney without an equally strong push-back.