Clint Eastwood’s empty chair at the Republican National Convention last month mounted a more passionate defense of President Obama’s policies and his vision for the country than Obama did last night.
Democrats hoping that last night’s debate would be the final nail in Mitt Romney’s coffin, and that Obama would -- for once and for all -- make his march to a second term seem inevitable are facing a dismal morning and the certain knowledge that the next six weeks are going to be a long hard slog.
It’s not just that snap polls taken immediately after the debate showed that nearly seven in ten viewers concluded that Romney convincingly won the debate.
It’s the realization that Obama seemed almost defiantly intent on losing it.
It’s not just that the president had a bad night. He had what appeared even to a lot of his supporters to be a bad attitude.
He seemed by turns detached and irritated.
It’s not just that snap polls taken immediately after the debate showed that nearly seven in ten viewers concluded that Romney convincingly won the debate. It’s the realization that Obama seemed almost defiantly intent on losing it.
Clearly ill-prepared to face a motivated Romney, the president was on the defensive throughout the 90-minute debate.
In what many analysts have described as an effort to mask his very real contempt for Romney – he’s reportedly derided his opponent as a “political shape shifter” -- Obama restricted himself to repeating bits of his regular stump speeches, but without much zeal.
Romney, often derided as detached and robotic, leavened his attacks on Obama with wit and with anecdotes about real Americans he has met on the campaign trail.
Obama went 36 minutes without even mentioning a real live human being.
He sounded plaintive at times, repeatedly reminding voters of the economic disaster he faced coming into office. That only played right into Romney’s strategy of painting the president as a guy who simply wasn’t up to the challenges he faced.
He failed to successfully hold the former Massachusetts governor’s feet to the fire, even when Romney appeared to be struggling a bit to explain how his proposed 20 percent across-the-board tax cut would NOT punch a $5 trillion hole in the budget.
And in a turn of events that had MSNBC’s Chris Matthews all but chewing off his own leg, Obama never once brought up Romney’s most damaging gaffe, his assertion last May that 47 percent of the American electorate are essentially deadbeats, an assertion that was repeated, albeit with a smaller percentage of the voters, by Romney’s running mate.
There was no mention of Bain Capital.
And in a debate held in Colorado – a swing state with a large and growing number of Latino voters, 6 percent of whom remain undecided -- the president failed to press Romney on the hard-line stance he took on immigration during the primaries, or his opposition to the Dream Act.
Even on the issue of Medicare and Romney’s support of a plan to effectively voucherize it, Obama gave Romney a pass, allowing him to wrap himself in the gauzy promise that the Unseen Hand of the Market would make everything all right, and that whatever impacts there would be would come to pass far off in some distant future.
In short, where was Clint and that empty chair when Democrats needed it?
Romney, on the other hand, was energized, articulate and engaging, even when he was steam-rolling the president and the hapless moderator, PBS’s Jim Lehrer.
He also seemed to know exactly which of the 60 million viewers who reportedly tuned into last night’s debate he needed to reach: 51 percent of the roughly 3.6 million of them who went into last night’s debate unsure of how they would cast their ballot.
In a deeply polarized electorate, with roughly 47 percent solidly behind the president and another 47 percent already lined up behind the GOP, this race pivots on the 6 percent who remain undecided, many of them in the Rust Belt, many of them in swing states, and a majority of them women without a college education who earn less than $25,000 a year.
These undecideds have been widely derided as “low-information voters” and there’s little doubt that there are quite a few among them whose world view is shaped by what they heard Uncle Sal say just before he passed out face-first into the yams at Thanksgiving last year.
But there are also quite a few of them who are moderately well-informed.
Some 75 percent of them believe the country is on the wrong track, but they also believe the economy is improving. And their concerns go beyond pocketbook issues.
According to a recent poll conducted for the Natural Resources Defense Council, 54 percent of the undecided voters in eight swing states say they believe that global warming is enough of an issue that they will vote for the candidate who vows to further reduce U.S. carbon emissions, 60 percent back higher fuel efficiency standards and 53 percent support extending tax breaks for renewable energy projects.
These are center or center-right voters who are looking for some reassurance before they vote that they’ll be voting for a guy who is both moderate and capable.
And to play to that vote, Romney, who had up until last night widely been seen as having been held hostage to the far right wing of the Republican party, came off as just that kind of candidate.
He deserves a lot of credit for pulling it off.
His performance last night proved that Romney clearly put a lot of work into the effort.
Over the past several months he’s reportedly undertaken a rigorous regimen of debate practice, sparring regularly with Ohio Republican Senator Ron Portman, standing in for Obama.
And that sparring paid off. There can be little doubt that during those mock debates, the fake Obama was tougher on Mitt Romney than the real one was.
Whether it pays off in the long run remains to be seen.
There are still two more presidential debates, as well as a vice presidential face-off, before the election.
But if last night’s debate is any indication of what we can expect in the future, the Democrats might want to take a page from Mitt Romney’s playbook. They too might want to enlist Rob Portman to stand in for Obama.
Seamus McGraw is a freelance journalist who has contributed to dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Playboy, The Forward, and Readers' Digest. He is the author of "The End of Country: Dispatches from the Frack Zone." He can be reached on Twitter @seamusmcgraw, or on Facebook at The End of Country.