Michael Gerson: Mitt Romney is striving for exceptional

By Michael Gerson Published: October 6, 2012
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Romney's effective indictment of Obama's record managed something difficult and important. It simultaneously steadied the confidence of Republicans in their own candidate while allowing Romney to adopt a more moderate, bipartisan tone on taxes, education and entitlements.

Romney did not announce or emphasize unexpected policy — which is generally not the purpose of debates. But his summaries of existing approaches were crisp and comprehensive. He not only pronounced, he explained. And he employed vignettes like political chess moves — a little hopelessness in Missouri, a little despair in Wisconsin, a little disillusionment in New Hampshire.

Romney prepared for the debate intensely, and it showed — which means it didn't show. He had not only practiced his material but internalized and mastered it, leaving a composite impression of ease and authenticity.

Obama a political orchid

Obama had not debated in years, and it also showed. He is a political orchid, thriving best in a hot, wet atmosphere of praise. Presented with serious, sustained criticism, he first seemed puzzled that his idiom wasn't working properly. Then came the avalanche of tweeted adjectives: annoyed, grim, unhappy, disengaged, glaring, defensive. For me, the low point came when he protested, “I'm going to make an important point here, Jim.” Show, as they say, don't tell. Obama's words were instantly forgettable. But his performance will be remembered, studied and mocked for its body language. He looked down. He looked away. It was the surrender of the averted gaze.

The best news for Romney is this: He rose to the most difficult moment. When the need was greatest, and the stage was largest, he was exceptional. It is one of the things that presidents do.

WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP

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