After scraping around for something — anything — good to say about President Barack Obama's debate performance, I came up with this much: At least he didn't look at his watch.
That disastrous gesture by incumbent President George H.W. Bush near the end of his 1992 debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot pretty much sunk whatever re-election chances he still had.
Obama suffered from the same sort of bored, disengaged, ho-hum presentation at his faceoff with Republican nominee Mitt Romney in Denver. Call it the Second-Term Blahs. Running for re-election, incumbent presidents fall completely out of practice. After four years of being surrounded by deferential yes-men and yes-women, presidents simply forget what it is like to face somebody who is pointedly accusing them of wrecking the country.
Did Obama forget that he was not standing on that stage to hold a civil conversation? Televised presidential debates are political theater. What you say is less important than how you say it, especially to the estimated 5 percent or so of voters who are still undecided. Many, by nature, are low-information voters or, sometimes, slow-information voters. It never hurts to repeat, repeat, repeat your talking points to this crowd, no matter how many times you have heard yourself say them.
Romney understands. With his polls sinking in the battleground states, he cheerfully threw everything that he had into the fight — plus more than a few things that he did not have, such as facts that were on his side.
For example, when Romney raised his by-now-familiar charge that, “On Medicare for current retirees, he's cutting $716 billion from the program,” I thought Obama would hit it out of the park. He would at least, I thought, note that the cost savings was not coming at the expense of Medicare beneficiaries. It is coming from insurance companies, hospitals and other providers.
The insurers and providers agreed to the cuts in return for the money they will gain from Obamacare's reducing the number of uninsured patients they currently care for. Here's a specific way that Obama helps curb Medicare's rising costs while expanding health care coverage. Romney's running mate Rep. Paul Ryan was impressed enough to include it in his much-touted budget proposal. Romney rejects it, without any specifics as to how he would replace it.