WASHINGTON — One large question at the center of the presidential race: In order to beat President Obama, does Mitt Romney need to be an exceptional candidate or merely an acceptable one?
For much of the campaign, Romney and his team have operated according to the acceptability theory. Obama, in this view, is a vulnerable incumbent who will eventually be undone by a stagnant economy. With 54 percent of likely voters already agreeing that Obama does not deserve re-election, Romney (the argument goes) just needs to be a viable alternative — an imaginable president — in order to defeat an incumbent in the process of failing.
Romney's convention speech was the triumph of this theory. It was designed for reassurance, not persuasion. It emphasized Romney's admirable background and values. It was almost entirely devoid of policy arguments, unexpected outreach or effective attacks. It was unambitious for a reason — because acceptability seemed the safest policy.
But the approach didn't work. Following the party conventions, it became clear that Obama has a hidden source of electoral buoyancy. Many Americans don't fully blame him for economic conditions and seem resigned to a new normal of high unemployment and stagnant growth. It is a historical paradox of the first order — the candidate of hope made viable by diminished expectations. But Obama will not fall by force of gravity.
This was the broader significance of Romney's performance in the first debate. It was more than an excellent technical performance. It was an admission that acceptability is not a sufficient strategy. For the first time in the general election, Romney seemed to realize that the presidency will not be awarded by default — that defeating Obama will require exceptional skills, strategy and ambition. And all were there when Romney needed them.
Romney was on the offensive from first to last, dominating the tone, content and flow of the debate. This seemed more than aggressiveness; something approaching authority. Romney's attacks were genially relentless. Instead of merely criticizing Obamacare or the Dodd-Frank financial legislation, he dissected them. He fired statistics like shotgun pellets — 23 million unemployed, one in six in poverty, 50 percent of college graduates can't find jobs. His critique was organized by a memorable theme — “trickle-down government.”
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