A surprisingly large segment of America tuned into the first presidential debate, but for some odd reason, President Obama did not appear among them. Who was in charge of his debate prep, Clint Eastwood? Even an empty chair would have provided a sturdier obstinacy.
The Committee to Re- Elect the President will obviously try to convince us that, like the economy, the commander in chief’s sub-par debate performance can be traced back to the Bush administration, but darker forces may be at work here. The Ghosts of Debaters Past.
We learned Mitt Romney wants to kill Big Bird, but that was about it as far as fireworks go. No word on the Cookie Monster. But it doesn’t look good. Mr. Romney always seemed more of a Masterpiece Theatre sort of guy anyway.
Perhaps the president was suffering from altitude poisoning, or distracted by missing his 20th wedding anniversary, or maybe the duties of Leader of the Free World are more exhausting than one thinks, because he fumbled and rambled, and gave the overall impression he was told the winner would be determined by time of possession.
And what was so interesting on the podium that compelled him to keep looking down at it? Was he taking one last longing look at his iPad with the pretty embossed presidential seal or focused on a particularly frustrating sequence in Angry Birds?
With an aggressive energy reminiscent of a well-groomed rescue Terrier, the Republican challenger immediately charged into the Oval ringship, steamrolling both the president and the moderator. He didn’t just dominate the debate, he twisted it into a logical Mobius strip.
Contradicting almost every one of his previously stated core beliefs, the former Governor of Massachusetts claimed to have no plan for tax cuts, said good things about portions of Obamacare, and demonstrated concern over the bailout of big banks. Don’t know whom it was that blitzed onstage in Denver, but that guy could have done pretty well in Democratic primaries.
In the 38 minutes Romney spoke, he put on a verbal gymnastics exhibition worthy of an Olympics final. Obscuring. Dissembling. Whitewashing. Changing positions. Twisting facts. Denying assertions. Just making stuff up. Doubling down on his own personal Etch A Sketch. Candidate Gumby. Only less green. Marginally. Let the bendy shaking begin. Next thing you know he’ll deny his 47 percent statement. What? Already? Wow.
One possible excuse for Obama’s shocking passivity is he was stunned by the audacity of Romney’s mendacity. There were traces of “I can’t believe he just said that in front of people” smirks. It seemed all he could to keep from falling into the much-warned eye-rolling Al Gore Sigh Trap.
Maybe watching Obama sleepwalking was responsible for time slowing down, but the debate went on forever. At least way past Jim Lehrer’s bedtime, who morphed from deferential to obsequious to invisible. Made the NFL replacement refs look effective.
There’s plenty of time for both sides to retool messages for the next two confrontations. The White House can be expected to encourage the president to more energetically nail Romney to his own words. And despite renewed confidence, Romney will surely run intensive rehearsals to practice a different listening face that doesn’t reflect an annoyed patience, slight smugness and just a disconcerting pinch of Sling Blade.
Will Durst is a political comedian who has performed around the world. He is a familiar pundit on television and radio. E-mail Will at email@example.com. Check out willandwillie.com for the latest podcast.