What the hell happened in the debate?

Well, actually, I can sum up the post’s subject question pretty easily. Obama lost. He got MittSlapped. Hard. That’s what happened.

But why did our President, who I will readily admit is a brilliant orator, lose so badly? I mean, about halfway through, I started wondering if this was some incredible Karl-Rove-like master plan at work where Obama intentionally throws the first debate for some hidden reason that will soon become evident to us all. And if you question Obama losing, just go back and look at the reaction of the liberal pundits on MSNBC right after the debate. Chris Matthews’ leg may have been tingling, but that wasn’t from a “thrill” moment; that was because he was pissing down it.

I think what happens boils down to arrogance. Barack Obama is a man who, love him or hate him, thinks incredibly highly of himself. I think the debate strategy was to go onstage with Mitt Romney, play a prevent defense, look Presidential and “above it all”, and let Mitt look like some crazed nut on the attack while Obama deftly parried him. It didn’t happen. We all know that. But I think that must have been the strategy. Why else did Obama hold back from the now-infamous “47%” Romney gaffe? I mean, come on, I’ve donated to the Romney campaign, and I know what he was trying to say in the clip, but to the average voter, it kinda looks like he’s writing off 47% of the country. You can damn well bet if I had been prepping Obama for the debate, I would have made sure that came out. But I suppose they were afraid of Obama looking “nasty”. Well, hello, he looked “nasty” anyway — bitter, uncomfortable, looking like he wanted to get the hell off the stage.

Of course, maybe Al Gore is right and it was the altitude. Because, of course, 4 years ago, when Obama accepted the nomination in Denver, well, we all know how terrible and flat that was, right?

Here’s my best explanation. First, let’s just get this out of the way — Obama needs a teleprompter. I’m not saying that’s a horrible thing; I’m not saying it makes him a bad leader (though I think he is — but for many other reasons). He just doesn’t do well off-the-cuff — when serious questions are asked. Yes, he can do “The View” without a teleprompter. But even in his press conferences, he gets to pick and choose who to take questions from. This is the first time he’s had to get up there and defend his record — which he can’t do — with a serious challenger, without the protective buffer of adoring media around him.

Which brings me back to arrogance. President Obama doesn’t know himself well enough. He came in unprepared. He thought all he had to do was stand on the stage with Mitt, give a few scripted answers, and all would be his. He simply wasn’t ready. And he wasn’t ready because for four years — longer, frankly; dating back into his entire election process — a doting media has doggedly refused to ask him tough questions that demand real answers. At one point I flipped back over to the debate from another channel and heard him trying to rebut Romney’s assertion that he (Romney) would not allow insurance companies to refuse to accept people with pre-existing conditions. Not only could I not follow what the President was saying, I couldn’t even figure out the point he was trying to make. That’s horrible. I mean, look, you can fumble an answer, but even in the fumbling, the audience should at least be able to understand the point you’re trying to make. I couldn’t. It was, quite simply, word salad.

Again, arrogance. The President is so used to having the media fill in the blanks for him; he’s never really had to do it himself — off teleprompter. I believe the man honestly thought that this would be a bit like his briefings, where the media is soft on him, and — arrogance again — that Mitt Romney is such an inept candidate that, frankly, Obama wouldn’t have to do much explaining of anything.

Well, it turns out Mitt Romney is not inept; he is, in fact, quite skilled at debating, and I think it caught Obama off guard. I believe Obama thought this would be a cakewalk. Show up, toss a few platitudes around, finish up, jet off with Michelle, pop some champagne, and enjoy his anniversary. Which is a mistake. Because he’s only ahead in the polls a couple of points, and because Mitt Romney is not the caricature the Dems have been painting of him since he effectively won the Republican nomination. As soon as Romney started speaking, millions of people who had only seen him in Obama attack ads thought, “Hey, that’s not the guy I saw in the Obama ads!”

I almost felt bad for Obama. I really — almost — did. Of course, I reminded myself what his record is, and that snapped me out of it pretty quickly, but I did come close to feeling bad for the guy. He just wasn’t even there. For the love of God, send Eastwood’s empty chair. It would have done better.

Arrogance also came out in the President’s body language. We know, from inside sources, that President Obama really does hold Mitt Romney in contempt; he can’t picture Romney possibly winning. So he didn’t even pay attention to his own body language. While Romney maintained clear eye contact and sounded earnest and prepared, Obama stared down, looking lost, looking like he wanted Jim Lehrer to bail him out somehow (he even snapped at Lehrer one time — not a good move). He looked uncomfortable. He looked…constipated. He looked like he’d rather be anywhere in the world but on that stage debating Mitt Romney. Go back and count the “Uhs” and “Ums”. Never a good thing; any public speaker knows that. Obama is a powerful public speaker; how he could not have known he was coming across so bad is unfathomable.

So…I think that’s about it. CNN was monitoring registered undecided voters, some of whom had voted for Obama. The poll numbers after the debate — 67 percent of those voters said Romney had won; 25 percent said Obama had won.  58% to 37%, they thought Romney would be a stronger leader. 46% found Mitt more likable than Obama, while 45% found Obama more likable. This coming after recent polls have shown Romney with a 22% “empathy” or “likability” gap. These are stunning numbers. I’m serious. I’ve never seen debate numbers like this. You usually get 56%-46%, or something like that. This kind of collapse on the part of an incumbent President is unheard of (although incumbent Presidents are indeed known to not do so well in their first debates — see Bush in 2004).

Congratulations, media. Your nonstop doting over Obama has translated to four years of him living in a protective bubble, unable to face serious questions from serious challengers without his safety blankets — the media and/or his teleprompter — there to help him. The irony is inescapable. You wanted him to win a second term so badly you made him a worse debater than he was four years ago.

I will, however, close with a warning to conservatives not to gloat over this. We have two more of these to go, plus a VP debate. Obama has time to recover. Obama has time to completely retune his message and come out there fired up and take it to Mitt Romney. So, if there are any Romney surrogates or campaign advisers reading this, what I’m telling you is, you need to redouble your efforts. Because Obama is not stupid. He knows he lost. He’s going to spend the next eight days coming up with a new strategy for the upcoming debate. Plus, the next debate is the dreaded “townhall”-style forum, which I think favors Obama heavily over Romney. This is not the time to rest on your laurels, Romneyites. This is time to work harder than ever and make sure you win the second and third debates. At the very least, don’t lose them. If Romney simply makes the next two debates draws, then he still wins the debate cycle.

And for the Obama folks? Try exposing him to some tough questions. Try pressing him. Try getting under his skin, and teaching him not to respond to it. Tell him, for the love of God, not to stare down at his hands and grimace as if he’s eaten bad seafood. Then maybe he won’t fail quite so miserably again.

Though, of course, I hope he does.

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