IT WAS 38 years ago this month that two fighters were locked in combat in a distant arena. During the contest, and from all outward appearances, one of them seemed to be pummeling the other with such energy and force, it was a given among those who watched the struggle: The aggressor was the odds-on favorite to be the winner.
You can bet your subprime that’s how George Foreman wished things had played out in October 1974, in Kinshasa, Zaire, at the Rumble in the Jungle.
History is current events: If all you were looking for in last night’s first presidential debate of the 2012 campaign season was a count of punches landed vs. punches thrown, you’re probably one of the early adopters of the idea that it was a victory for Romney. Once the fact checkers weigh in, you’re likely to be in for disappointment; the former Massachusetts governor shook the Etch a Sketch more than a few times last night, in ways that couldn’t be more transparent.
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In ways that the chattering class can’t even understand right now, Romney’s performance last night redounds hugely to the president’s favor. In ways no one is talking about yet, Mitt Romney may have performed the last aria in a disastrous political campaign opera by doubling down — or quintupling down — on his proven willingness to say anything to anyone at any given time, even when what he says is directly, immediately contradicted by the public record.
Last night, Mitt Romney may have finally defeated Mitt Romney.
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YOU DON’T need a revisitation of the whole 90-minute debate to get this; excerpts will do nicely. Go back and read the transcript or watch their exchanges on health care. Note how the president effectively schools Romney about the absence of Republican support for the Affordable Care Act, (law since March 2010, now & forever shorthanded as Obamacare) and the changes Romney would make in crafting a new health-care law if he wins.
“And Governor Romney ... wrote and said, what we did in Massachusetts could be a model for the nation. And I agree that the Democratic legislators in Massachusetts might have given some advice to Republicans in Congress about how to cooperate, but the fact of the matter is, we used the same advisers, and they say it's the same plan.”
Mitt Romney then betrayed himself with a revealing tic, an inadvertent physiological announcement of his true mental state at that moment: As he’s done before when he knows he’s in trouble, he licked his lips and swallowed. Quite visibly. The mask slips. Like the bead of sweat on Richard Nixon’s chin in 1960, like Bush 41’s glance at his watch in 1992, that Romney tell spoke volumes, revealed in an instant where Romney’s permanently wounded. On health care, the former governor’s got no play. And he knows it. And the president knows it. And we know it too.
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Obama continued: “Governor Romney says we should replace it: ‘I'm just going to repeal it, but we can replace it with something.’ But the problem is, he hasn't described what exactly we'd replace it with, other than saying we're going to leave it to the states.
“But the fact of the matter is that some of the prescriptions that he's offered, like letting you buy insurance across state lines, there's no indication that that somehow is going to help somebody who's got a pre-existing condition be able to finally buy insurance. In fact, it's estimated that by repealing Obamacare, you're looking at 50 million people losing health insurance at a time when it's vitally important.”
Romney responds: “Let — well, actually, actually it's, it's, it's a lengthy description, but number one, pre-existing conditions are covered under my plan. Number two, young people are able to stay on their family plan. That's already offered in the private marketplace; you don't have, have the government mandate that for that to occur.
This — this jittery, defensive stammering response, this narrative of inconsistencies — is what the pundits think was a winner in a presidential debate?
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THE PRESIDENT pressed his advantage, connecting dots between one Romney position and another: “When Governor Romney says that he'll replace it with something but can't detail how it will be, in fact, replaced … the reason he set up the system he did in Massachusetts is because there isn't a better way of dealing with the pre-existing conditions problem. It, it just reminds me of, you know, he says that he's going to close deductions and loopholes for his tax plan. That's how it's going to be paid for. But we don't know the details.
“He says that he's going to replace Dodd-Frank, Wall Street reform. But we don't know exactly which ones. He won't tell us.
“He now says he's going to replace Obamacare and assure that all the good things that are in it are going to be in there and you don't have to worry.
“And at some point, I think the American people have to ask themselves, is the reason that Governor Romney is keeping all these plans to replace secret because they're too good? Is, is it because that somehow middle-class families are going to benefit too much from them?
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Well, frankly, yes. Having the good sense to know he’d have to debate Romney again this month (twice), Obama was taking notes, not notes based on what advisers had told him or what columnists and pundits suggested, but what he was in the act of observing himself, in real time, on the debate stage.
It made for brilliant optics, maybe accidental, maybe not: Watching the frequent cutaways between Romney and Obama, it was almost as if Romney was on the couch, unburdening himself to the president with the rising physical animation of a patient in the midst of a self-revelation.
Obama let Romney be Romney. And Romney revealed himself to be what he’s always been in this campaign: a Zelig, a chameleon, a windsock in a hurricane, a man who will be whatever he needs to be at the moment.
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ROMNEY HAS said previously in the campaign that his proposed $5 trillion tax cut — reducing individual income tax rates across the board by 20 percent — would be paid for by closing loopholes on tax deductions. Last night, however, he reversed himself, lied about his own proposal.
“If the tax plan he described were a tax plan I was asked to support, I'd say, 'Absolutely not,’ ” Romney said. “I'm not asking for a $5 trillion tax cut. What I've said is I won't put in place a tax cut that adds to the deficit. ... I've got five boys. I'm used to people saying something that's not always true, but just keep on repeating it and ultimately hoping I'll believe it.”
Obama had something to say about that. “Now ... he is saying that his big bold idea is ‘never mind.’ Obama said. “The fact is, if you are lowering the rates the way you describe, governor, it is not possible to come up with enough deductions or loopholes. It is math. It is arithmetic.”
Note that almost subliminal swipe at Romney, that momentary channeling of Bill Clinton, who devastatingly used the word “arithmetic” on Obama’s behalf at the Democratic convention.
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Last month, Romney said that Americans shouldn’t “be expecting a huge cut in taxes because I’m also going to lower deductions and exemptions.” Last night, Romney said “[m]y view is that we ought to provide tax relief to people in the middle class.”
Romney called for the repeal of Obamacare last night (“I’ll get rid of that”), but offered an argument that was little better than making a change for the sake of making a change, and buying into the reflexive, presumably populist assumption that there’s nothing government can do that private industry can’t do better.
This, mind you, at the same time he said he found things to like in the Affordable Care Act: Last night he said he supports one of the ACA’s tenets: requiring insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions —
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FLASH POLLS conveyed the first-blush mob-howl sentiment that Romney had won the first debate. Much of the mainstream media’s instant analysis was big on the “instant” part. “Analysis”? Meh.
MSNBC’s Matthews was king of the vein-poppin’ daddies last night. Screaming for rhetorical fireworks, he clearly wanted a knockdown, drag-out event at the Magness Arena. “I don't know what he was doing out there,” he said. “Where was Obama tonight?!”
Regrettably, oratorical brawlers like Matthews and Schultz missed the overall. They confused Obama’s unwillingness to get down and dirty in the mud (the classic warrior debate, relentlessly on offense) with the president’s intention to fight — on his terms. They howled for confrontation and challenge when a smarter strategy was called for.
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Think about it. Obama and Romney had never debated before. What would Obama have gained by wading into his opponent, telegraphing punches, charging into battle before he knew the terrain?
Matthews and Schultz were looking for dueling campaign rallies wrapped in a debate format. Obama understands what they don’t, he understands what columnist (and Matthews intellectual darling) Andrew Sullivan understands: For Obama, this is “the long game.”
Matthews and Schultz seem to think that Romney “got away” with something last night, because Obama didn’t make like a prosecutorial pit bull and snarl with every opportunity. Romney got away with nothing; the fact checkers (at MSNBC and elsewhere) will see to that.
Obama brought a scalpel to a knife fight last night. Guess what? In the right hands, a scalpel can do the same damage, and maybe more. And a scalpel’s easier to hide.
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THERE WERE times when the president did seem to be off his feed. Romney tried to pick a fight with Obama over $90 billion in alternative energy subsidies; the president’s body betrays its own truth; he tenses visibly; you can see the tension on the left back side of his jawline. The president seems preoccupied. There was much on his mind in general … and anyway, it was his 20th wedding anniversary. Who’d want to spend that special day facing down some rich schmo with the charm of a trash compactor?
And the TV analysts made a big deal out of Obama not looking Romney in the eye (something the president did do almost evasively, when he did it at all).
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Everyone thought Mitt Romney did a great job last night, but what did he do a great job doing? Testily going on offense from a defensive crouch; proposing to do what the Obama administration has already done; and furthering the distortions and Etch a Sketch rewrites that have defined his campaign from the beginning — and doing it in front of an audience of at least 50 million people. Not a bad night’s work.
With his back not just against the wall but pushing through it, Romney did throw a lot of punches last night, and Obama gave as good as he got. But looking through the lens of the long game, President Obama actually won the first debate, on points. It was a stealth TKO: the president revealed the weaknesses of his opponent with minimal exertion.
And he did it in the most elegant, ruthlessly efficient way you can imagine: by letting his opponent do it to himself.
Sun Tzu would be proud. The fact checkers will be busy.
Image credits: Obama-Romney two-shot, top: via maboot.com. Obama-Romney two-shot, bottom: MSNBC. The Art of War cover: © 2005 Shambhala Publications.