Beating an Empty Chair

We’ve all been critical of Mitt Romney from the beginning of the primary and throughout the general election for his lack of core principles, pale-pastel ideas, flaccid attacks on Obama, and lack of specifics.  I have not shied away from pointing out that the Romney convention along with his acceptance speech was a disaster.


So what about his debate performance?

To paraphrase Michele Obama, this is the first time I’m genuinely proud of Mitt Romney.  Romney was sharp, prepared, fact-oriented, devastatingly focused, and specific enough for the target audience.  He was armed with the facts of Obama’s unprecedented period of stagnation and rising costs and had scathing and cogent answers for everything Obama said.  Most importantly, he dominated.

No, Romney did not come with sharp bold colors like Ronald Reagan.  He never was an articulate defender of unfettered free markets and limited government.  He never will be.  And five weeks before the election in the midst of the debate was never going to be the time to change.  He came with his pale pastel marker.  However, here is the difference.  This time, Romney pressed down with his pale pastel marker so hard that there was indeed a bold contrast to Obama.

Romney hit on many of the themes we’ve pushed for so long; incomes down, prices up; health insurance premiums skyrocketing.

Obama, on the other hand, embodied the empty chair of Clint Eastwood.  He rambled incoherently about the same talking points he’s been using for the past few years.  While Romney offered new pungent attacks on Obama’s tenure with devastating focus and facts; while Romney finally broke new ground on his policy positions, Obama resorted to his tired lines of investing in math and science teachers.  Romney sounded like he was using his own words; Obama sounded like he was channeling Stephanie Cutter.  The only difference between him and the empty chair is that Obama appeared to be genuinely irritated.  Contrast that to Romney who managed to eviscerate Obama while still appearing quite amicable.


To be clear, some of us were uncomfortable will Romney’s promise never to cut taxes for the rich, even though they already shoulder a disproportionate share of the tax burden.  We were also uncomfortable with his lack of free market principles on Social Security and Education, as well as parts of healthcare policy.  But that’s nothing new.  He was never going to change course this late in the election.

What is new is that he was able to harness the other differences between him and Obama to finally offer that bold contrast and acerbic critique of Obama’s tenure that we’ve longed for during this entire campaign.  In the best moment of the debate, and perhaps even the entire campaign, Romney ripped Obama for focusing on tiny tax deductions for oil companies while he handed out $90 billion to green energy companies like Solyndra in a bid to pick winners and losers in the market.

“I had a friend who said you don’t just pick the winners and losers, you pick the losers.”

“$90 billion, that would have — that would have hired 2 million teachers. $90 billion. And these businesses, many of them have gone out of business, I think about half of them, of the ones have been invested in have gone out of business. A number of them happened to be owned by people who were contributors to your campaigns.”


At around 9:58 I thought it was over when Obama began attacking Romney for his inconsistency on healthcare by supporting the principles of Obamacare in Massachusetts.  We all knew this was coming.  However, oddly enough, instead of pursuing this line of attack, Obama pivoted back to defending….the death panels, of all things!  That ended his one chance to go on offense.

Many of the pro-Obama types in the media are shocked and appalled at Obama’s dismal performance.  However, they must remember that Obama has always been a poor communicator ever since he took office in 2009.  There is a reason why he needed a teleprompter to speak to elementary school students.  Even his sudden rise in the polls was more a result of Bill Clinton and some of the other feisty speeches at the DNC, not his own speech.  His acceptance speech was a lethargic rerun of the same bromides that the public has long tuned out since the midterm elections.  His debate performance was just another rerun, albeit without the teleprompter.  Hence, it was an embarrassment.

This debate was orchestrated well and finely executed.  Jim Lehrer did a good job of letting the candidates speak freely about substance.  This debate was more substantive than any other presidential forum in recent memory.

To the extent that debates ever move the polls, this one should definitely shift the momentum to Romney.  However, as was the case with the Ryan pick and some other occasional bold actions of the campaign, Romney must not let the debate performance sit as a one-time act.  He must relentlessly condemn Obama’s presidency with the same command of the facts, the same passion, and the same amicable disposition for the next month.  Obama might be an empty chair, but the American people want a clear alternative.  Last night, Romney finally provided voters with that choice.


Cross-posted from The Madison Project


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