Winner: To Be Determined.
Despite the obvious temptation to judge the debate like a boxing match and declare a winner immediately, it’s still too early to tell who actually won.
Mitt Romney scored a clear victory in terms of style — he spoke forcefully into the camera, delivered all of his favorite talking points, and managed to get away with several big lies by running roughshod over moderator Jim Lehrer. The subjects that present the most political danger for Romney — immigration, gun control, women’s health, and his “47 percent” remarks — were never mentioned by either Lehrer or Obama.
Whether Romney’s performance will have a tangible impact on the race remains to be seen, however. The debate featured few (if any) memorable moments, and — with the exception of some policy shifts from Romney, which cannot be taken at face value at this point — gave us very little new information about the candidates. That favors the man in the lead, President Obama.
To put it another way: The fundamental state of the race — Obama holding a narrow but consistent lead — has not changed in over a year, through countless speeches, positive and negative jobs reports, natural disasters, diplomatic crises, and two political conventions. Is this bland debate going to fundamentally change that? Until we know the answer, it’s premature to declare a winner.
Loser: Jim Lehrer
Lehrer was completely unable to control the debate, letting the candidates talk over him, ignore his attempts to direct the conversation or enforce the loose time limits, and do everything but openly mock his authority as a moderator. Romney especially steamrolled Lehrer, prompting Obama for America Deputy Campaign Manager Stephanie Cutter to quip: “I don’t think we need a moderator at the next debate… we have Mitt Romney.”
Maybe having an 80 year-old man presiding over a debate with few to no guidelines wasn’t the greatest idea.
Best Dodge: Romney On Simpson-Bowles
When Lehrer asked Romney if he supported the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan, Romney essentially answered “no, but I blame Obama for not supporting it anyway.”
“I have my own plan,” Romney told Lehrer, but “the president should have grabbed” Simpson-Bowles anyway and fought for it in Congress.
Crucially, Romney was able avoid mentioning that his own running mate, Paul Ryan, was instrumental in killing the plan in its infancy (and preventing Obama from “grabbing” it).
Best Answer From Romney: On Oil Subsidies
When President Obama criticized the $4 billion in subsidies received by oil companies every year, Romney fired back with his strongest answer of the night, countering the president’s point by noting that the Obama administration has put $90 billion into subsidizing green jobs, and that half of the recipient companies failed.
Although Romney’s response was largely false — it’s not true that half of the recipients have failed, he was wrong about the amount subsidizing Big Oil, and Romney himself actually supports much of the green jobs spending (most notably the money that goes towards “clean coal”) — it was nevertheless a strong moment in terms of style. By mentioning specifics, which he is generally loath to do, Romney presented himself as the competent business veteran that his campaign has been unsuccessfully promoting for years.