1) Watching the debate while monitoring Twitter is sub-optimal. The echo-chamber effect is deafening. I closed it down after the first 40 minutes and won’t have it on again during the debates.
2) Jim Lehrer had a terrible night. He got bullied around the stage, lost control of the format, and inserted himself in needless ways in the interest of forcing explicit contrasts–even when the contrast was everywhere.
3) Romney had a good night. Vigorous. Tough. Just the right balance of backward and forward looking. His strongest moment was his aggressive final answer before they went to closing statements. Instead of looking to the moderator for help, as he’s often done in the past, he basically pushed Lehrer around the stage all night and made him his bitch.
That said, I’ll never get used to his Default Face, though. At the end of every answer. Whether he’s thundering to a vehement close or finishing with a soft joke, he immediately sets his face to default with a pursed lip smile, a shoulder sag, and this weird raised-brow puppy dog expression. It’s not the face that’s strange–it’s the fact that he puts it on after every single answer. Almost like he’s a robot returning to rest-state. Aside from that, though, he was incredibly human and lifelike.
4) Obama was halting and not particularly smooth and nearly listless. He’ll need to figure out how to handle a Romney who beats the moderator into giving him every last word.
Yet at the same time, he came across as totally reasonable and serious. Look, this is a guy who’s trying to fundamentally change the citizenry’s compact with the machinery of government. And yet, if you dropped in from Mars tonight, I suspect you’d never, ever get that from his performance tonight.
Speaking of dog whistles, his line about Romney’s secrecy was basically “MORMON MORMON MORMON”, right?
5) Winner? Probably Romney. I suspect he helped himself more than Obama did. But it’s not clear to me whether it was serious enough to translate into a tactical or strategic advantage. We’ll see in three days when there’s some tracking poll.
6) In general, this election is disheartening. America is at an important crossroads, more important than normal. We face serious structural problems with the modern state. And yet we have before us two of the worst candidates in modern times–men who are smaller than the moment in every way. Yet tonight both candidates were substantive and smart and looked bigger than they really are. So that was nice.
Updated the morning after: Look, I agree that Romney had a much better debate than Obama. I’d go so far as to call it the best Romney debate perf I’ve seen in any cycle. But Obama it strikes me that when Andrew Sullivan is hyperventilating about Obama having lost the presidency and John Hinderaker is claiming that “it’s over” it strikes me that people may be running slightly ahead of themselves in their excitement.
Now maybe Rasmussen will show Romney +3 in his tracking poll six days from now, in which case we’ll know that the debate had real consequence. And maybe it’ll prove to be an inflection point in the race. But if you strip out the echo chamber of commentary and just watch the debate itself, I think you’d be much more cautiously optimistic about the eventual effects.