One debate has changed everything, because Mitt Romney didn't just beat expectations, he beat Barack Obama. What just recently seemed like a widening gulf between incumbent and challenger has, according to early post-debate polls, already disappeared. Many liberals insist this is an overreaction to one event, but they fail to understand this one event struck at this election's core.
Make no mistake: Mr. Romney won the debate. Even Mr. Obama's most passionate partisans implicitly admit it – generally by trying to excuse it (Al Gore going so far as to tacitly blame Denver's altitude). But if you don't believe the headlines, check out CNN's post-debate poll.
According to 67 percent of respondents, Mr. Romney was judged to have done "the best job in the debate," while 82 percent said he had exceeded expectations. Majorities judged Mr. Romney better able to handle health care, taxes, the economy and the budget deficit, and by two to one they said the debate made them more likely to vote for Mr. Romney than Mr. Obama.
Such a pronounced outcome watched by tens of millions was sure to have an effect. If we see "bounces" in the polls even from set-piece conventions – and Mr. Obama did – how much more for a real event?
And the race was already tightening as Mr. Obama's convention bounce came back to earth. We can expect gravity's pull only to get stronger now.
Gravity will be pulling for more reasons than just a one-off event like last week's debate, though. The first presidential debate struck at this election's essence. Mr. Obama has had a rotten four-year economy and budget. Never has America paid so much for so little: its highest peacetime deficits and its worst post-Depression economic recovery. Mr. Romney's wisely points to this as evidence that Mr. Obama is not up to the job. That was his overarching theme in last week's debate.
Mr. Obama continues to defend himself by casting blame on his predecessor: He inherited a bad situation and made the best of it. His offense has been to say that Mr. Romney is not qualified for the job. That was his overriding debate theme. Unfortunately for Mr. Obama, the debate's outcome has now effectively refuted his attack against Mr. Romney.
Mr. Romney only needed a tie to challenge it – to show he was equal to the incumbent. Instead, he got a win.
Mr. Obama's line of attack is now going to be harder to advance. In much of the public's mind, Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney are now at least equals. From that equating, it is a short conclusion: Considering the last four years, why not give the other guy a chance?
That is the conclusion Mr. Obama can least afford in this election. His entire campaign is premised on preventing the public from reaching it. Now there is not only nothing to stop it, there is ample reason propelling the public toward it.
J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department, the Office of Management and Budget and as a congressional staff member.