Last night — between sleeps — I found the debate in my iPhone and watched it straight through (except for the closing statements). Last week, watching the debate live, I did not think Obama was especially bad, and I was surprised when the liberal pundits, instead of providing the usual spin — ideas about why their candidate was better — all simultaneously collapsed into grief over how horrible Obama was. He was tired, confused, disengaged. It was as if he were not there at all.
And so the aftermath unfolded, with this talking point — which everyone had by the time the debate had ended — got repeated over and over. The New Yorker did a cover depicting the debate with Obama represented as an empty chair.
I watched again to see what I had missed. I was an undecided voter at the time, and to me — you can see it in my live-blogging — Obama seemed low-key and mellow, "rolling out policies, pretty wonkily." That last quote referred to both men. I said: "They're not really attacking each other."
Checking my observations on second viewing, looking to see what all the commentators claim to have seen, my experience was the same. Obama's performance was surely defensible. He didn't hem and haw or pause or look sleepy. He drifted from topic to topic too much and absurdly returned to schools too many times, but it seemed to me he had chosen a strategy, which was to be a decent, thoughtful, moderate guy, perhaps because it would appeal to women (like me) and to moderate undecideds (like me).
Why didn't the commentators who should have defended him defend him on that ground? Even if you think I'm wrong, we're talking about spin. What I'm saying is at least plausible spin, but we didn't hear it. Why? That's the puzzle before me, and I have the answer. There had to have been a coordinated decision to go with the talking point: Obama was terrible. He was tired, disengaged, unprepared. Shocking! But why would Obama's supporters coordinate to tell the story that way? What a weird thing to choose to put in our minds?
Here's why they did it. Romney was so much better than Obama. Romney was vigorous, vividly in command of the facts, principles of economics, free-market ideology. Like Obama, he had a strategy to appeal to moderates, and he jumped into the moderate ground and occupied it — stunningly — with modesty and charm. He radiated competence and readiness to work for us. There he stood, the brilliant candidate, who wants only to help us, knows how to help us, and deeply, passionately cares that we need help. Wow.
Don't let that be the story! Don't look at that! Look at pathetic woeful Obama. He was off his game. That's not good for Obama — as his drop in the polls shows — but it was better than the alternative: talking about how Romney dramatically topped the President — the President, who came to the debate with all the gravitas of the presidency and all the knowledge and understanding that he has through working as the President these last 4 years.
The meme The Bad Obama was — colluding pundits decided — preferable to The Great Romney.