SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Contrary to conventional wisdom that debates are rarely, if ever, game-changers, the first presidential debate was a demolition derby.
And no amount of post-debate fact-checking, spinning or dances of one's choice (Barack Obama has cited Mitt Romney's tap-dancing and soft-shoe) is going to alter the impression of Romney's winning-ness.
It was quite simply a knockout performance by the Republican challenger. Or, as Notre Dame professor and political observer Robert Schmuhl put it, “Romney gets a gold medal and Obama wasn't even in the same competition.”
Schmuhl, professor of American studies and author of “Statecraft and Stagecraft: American Political Life in the Age of Personality,” told me that on optics alone, the victor was clear.
“All one had to do on Wednesday night is turn down the volume and study the body language of the two figures. After a short period of time, there was no comparison in terms of performance.”
As anyone watching the debate couldn't avoid noticing, the president rarely looked at Romney, seemingly riveted by something on his lectern. He may have been taking notes — or studying the wood grain — but the effect was to appear disengaged. Or miffed. Or rude. Refusing to look at people when they're talking, whether a debating partner, a spouse or a colleague, is a blatant act of passive hostility. One need only be human to recognize it.
Obama's performance has been sufficiently critiqued, though one tic seems to have escaped attention. His million-dollar smile, which usually lights up a room, seemed like a flashlight in broad daylight. It appeared to be remembered punctuation, as though thinking to himself, he decided:
“This is not going well. Oh wait, they love it when I smile.” Ignition.
Far from being an expression of humor, confidence or even friendliness, the smile seemed false, an impostor at a funeral, a news reader's inappropriate cheerfulness at catastrophic news.
It was, frankly, painful to watch.
Optically, the effects were clear — and in the age of media and personality, optics matter. As Schmuhl noted, Romney, despite being 65 and Obama just 51, seemed the much younger man — both youthful and energetic. Obama seemed tired, peeved and eager to be anywhere but there.