Now we'll see how much debates really matter. Often they don't matter much. But the presidential debate Wednesday night might matter a great deal, not because of what the candidates said, but what the debate told us about who the candidates really are.
Barack Obama was revealed to be the empty suit with a great gift of gab and a talent only for appealing to the nation's guilty conscience. Some of us recognized the empty suit four years ago. Like all great salesmen, he can charm prospective customers when he tries, but without a teleprompter he's hopelessly lost at sea. On Wednesday night, he forgot whether he was selling rubbing alcohol or ladies' corsets, and it showed.
Like all presidents, he's accustomed to watching everybody swoon when he steps into the room, and the only tune on his iPod is "Hail to the Chief," which he plays often. When Mitt Romney confronted him with something less than a genuflection, the president was rattled for the rest of the evening. Life outside a bubble is tough, particularly for a president.
Mr. Romney, to our considerable surprise, has a gift for talking to the common man. He may be one of us, after all. This is particularly important in an age when everybody wants the president to feel his pain and the first lady to come over with a green-bean casserole. He arrived with a game plan and kept to it. He used the word "jobs" more than 30 times. It became a mantra. He was confident, respectful, and looked to be the man in charge of the evening. He showed unexpected flashes of humor. Once, mildly rebuking the president for endlessly repeating a canard about a tax cut, he recalled that as the father of five boys he was accustomed to hearing something repeated over and over in hopes that repetition would make it so.
But will it matter? Several presidential candidates have survived bad debate nights and gone on to win election. Ronald Reagan, remembered as the original Great Communicator, wandered from first base to center field and into the dugouts in his first debate with Walter Mondale in 1984, and then won 49 states, giving Minnesota to its native son only as a gentleman's gimme. George Bush the elder lost a debate to Michael Dukakis before clobbering him in 1988, and George the son lost his debate with John Kerry in 2004 and subsequently torpedoed the swift boat in November.
Nevertheless, Mr. Romney's stellar performance and the subsequent media meltdown after the debate was the tonic his supporters needed, and might even have stiffened the spines of some of the Republican summer soldiers who were ready to quit the fight and go home to sulk. The demoralization of the president's camp followers in the media won't last; they're already finding happy portents in the wreckage of Wednesday night. But the meltdown was fun while it lasted, and some of the media celebrities revealed themselves to be the gong-show partisans everyone knows they are. The meltdown makes the convincing argument of media bias and connivance in a way that conservative critics never could.
Chris Matthews, who has the loudest mouth on cable TV and thrives in a state of 24/7 hysteria, was rendered into a vast pool of lard. He was typical for the night. He was so overwrought, you might have thought the creepy-crawly he usually feels on his leg when he hears Mr. Obama speak had crawled into his underwear. He offered to tutor the president for the next two debates.
"He would learn something about [how to] debate. There's a hot debate going on in this country. You know where it's being held? Here on [MSNBC] is where we're having the debate. We have our knives out. We go after the people what was [the president] doing tonight? He went in there disarmed Obama should watch MSNBC. He will learn something every night on this show and all these shows. This stuff we're watching, it's like first grade for us. We know all this stuff."
Barack Obama went into the garage Thursday morning for an overhaul, a ring-and-valve job at a minimum, and the mechanics will have him ready for the next presidential debate Oct. 16 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. Mitt Romney can't count on getting a weak, confused and bumbling opponent next time. But the messiah's honeyed words no longer charm. The novelty of voting for the first black president to assuage white liberal guilt has just about worn off. The Obama dilemma is that he must go on the offensive, whether presidential or not. But defending the indefensible, as he learned Wednesday night, is a fool's errand.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.
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