Report Card: 2012’s First Presidential Debate

by Wendy Simmons | October 4, 2012 9:30 am

[1]President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney squared off Wednesday night in 2012’s first presidential election debate, set in Denver — and the results were a little bit different than what the majority of Americans were expecting[2].

Here’s a quick report card breaking down how each of the candidates did, as well as moderator Jim Lehrer, whose … er, performance … set social media on fire:

Mitt Romney: A

Mitt Romney came into the first presidential debate as the underdog, trailing in the polls and widely predicted to lose. He ended up dramatically exceeding expectations.

Although he did not offer any new policies or solutions that have not been on his website or part of his stump speech for 18 months, he managed to dominate the debate and present himself as far more compassionate and reasonable than anything we’ve seen in the five years he has been running for president.

Typically, candidates make a major pivot to the center after they have wrapped up the primary process. Romney has waited until the month before the election to present himself as a mainstream candidate, complete with colorful anecdotes about down-and-out people in swing states. He even said he has no interest in lowering taxes for rich people!

Perhaps it was this Etch-a-Sketch shakeup — if not his attack on Big Bird[3] — that threw Obama off-balance. The president tried hard to pin him down on how his math would work out, but he got nowhere. Romney simply hammered home his “principles” and continued to deny the electorate any specifics. Although substantively his ideas and policies are as vacuous as they were the day before, he simultaneously put the president on the defensive and appeared reasonable.

However, while Romney’s strategy played out well on stage and TV, it will be difficult for the campaign to maintain the momentum when the fact-checkers dissect and contrast his statements Wednesday with what he and Paul Ryan have been promoting.

Barack Obama: B-

Expectations for President Obama were high. After maintaining a bounce in the polls after an extraordinary convention, the political commentariat assumed Obama would excel in the first debate. Unfortunately for the Obama campaign and his supporters, he failed to deliver.

President Obama seemed tired and unenthusiastic throughout the entire process. While he deftly explained some of his policies and competently defended his record, he appeared “wonkish” and bored. As veteran Democratic strategist James Carville noted, “Obama seemed like he did not want to be there tonight.”

One of the most glaring errors Obama made Wednesday was not attacking Romney more aggressively and demanding more specifics. On the question of tax cuts, he could have easily pointed out that cutting tax rates across the board by 20% (Romney’s plan) will cost $5 trillion. Then he could have asked specifically how he plans to pay for it. This is basically the pretzel that Paul Ryan knotted himself into on Fox News Sunday, when Chris Wallace tried to press him on this question. Instead, Obama drew on “independent analyses” rather than simple common sense and arithmetic to make the point.

Jim Lehrer: F

The moderator of these debates has an enormous responsibility to the American people, and Jim Lehrer of PBS thoroughly let us down. He did not ask one specific question of these two candidates. Instead, he asked them in general terms to detail the differences between their positions. This approach simply opened a window for Obama and Romney to make short speeches that we have heard ad nauseam.

As I noted yesterday[4], the most obvious question on taxes to ask both men was: “name one specific loophole you would close.” It was astonishing that Lehrer did not push the candidates on this obvious point.

Lehrer also failed to follow up on some of the generalities made about tax policy, demanding specifics. He chose instead to remain quiet for most of the time and let the candidates duke it out — his nonpresence was so notable, in fact, that it spawned a joking Twitter account, @silentjimlehrer[5].

So, we learned nothing. Except perhaps that the multitudinous GOP primary debates did in fact benefit Mitt Romney and that maybe we ought to de-fund PBS after all.

The opinions contained in this column are solely those of the writer.

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  1. [Image]:
  2. what the majority of Americans were expecting:
  3. his attack on Big Bird:,0,4344976.story
  4. As I noted yesterday:
  5. spawned a joking Twitter account, @silentjimlehrer:

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