IF presidential debates were single-game elimination affairs like the new Major League Baseball playoff format, this would all be over. Mitt Romney won the first of three debates Wednesday. He won it decisively. Can he do it again?
Barack Obama was outplayed from the start. Incumbents obviously must stay on the defense because their record is on the line and Obama's economic record is hard to defend. The president's words, his body language, his face — all showed signs of a man on the run from himself. This doesn't mean he can't win another term. It does mean that Romney has started throwing strikes.
Obama did what Obama always does in extolling the federal government as the solution to a range of problems. Practically from his opening breath, he also did what he always does: invoke class envy. Our system is “skewed toward the wealthy,” he said, not one minute beyond the opening gun.
Romney was unapologetic in his resistance to raising taxes on the upper class. He was relentless on the devastation that Obama's policies have wrought on the middle class. He gave Obama no opening to attack Romney on his supposed lack of concern for the poor.
In Romney's words, the candidates offer “two very different paths leading in very different directions.” Obama's path is leading us toward a cliff. Romney wants to go the other way.
The challenger's best line involved Obama's crony capitalism that rewards his supporters in the green energy arena. The president hasn't been picking between winners and losers, Romney said. He's been picking losers.
In a debate focused on jobs, taxes and the deficit (with a lesser spotlight on health care), energy policy cracked the starting lineup. Obama had to dig oil companies for “making money every time you go to the pump.” What should they do, Mr. President? Lose money? Break even? If they were losing money, who would supply us with gasoline?
Yes, Obama's line was ad hoc and parenthetical, yet it precisely reflects his scorn for business acumen in general and fossil fuel companies in particular. Perhaps Romney should have countered with a joke about how Whole Foods makes money every time you buy organic arugula. That would perfectly nail the contrast between Obama's dreamy elitism and Romney's down-to-earth message that this election is about jobs, deficit reduction and energy independence.
Romney was focused, well-informed and aggressive — all the things his nervous supporters have been saying he needed to be. He perhaps overstressed some talking points and came across as too rote at times. But he was at least talking in specifics whereas Obama kept resorting to the platitudes that helped him win the presidency four years ago. His own specifics (Obamacare) cost Democrats the House of Representatives two years ago.
As syndicated columnist George Will noted recently, baseball is a game without a clock while presidential races eventually time out. Romney hit one out of the park Wednesday, but two debates and countless campaign appearances will take place between now and Nov. 6.
There are no designated hitters in this contest. We now know that Mitt Romney is capable of waging a winning campaign. He came out swinging. He must continue to do so.
The path this country is on under Obama doesn't even lead to second base, much less home plate.