By JONATHAN GURWITZ
New York Times News Service
Presidential debates aren’t supposed to matter. No one watches them, and they don’t change voters’ minds. This year they did.
Going into the first debate on Oct. 3, the Gallup tracking poll showed President Barack Obama with as much as a six-point lead over Mitt Romney. Months of Obama campaign ads had taken their toll, ads that variously depicted Romney as a political extremist, an ideological vagabond, a heartless plutocrat, a corporate vampire who sucked the life out of companies and communities and a reckless leader who would unnecessarily plunge the nation into foreign conflicts.
Then in Denver, a large number of Americans got to see and hear the actual Romney for the first time. To their surprise, he did not carry a pitchfork or have horns. He looked and sounded reasonable, knowledgeable, in command of the facts. He was presidential, while the actual president appeared listless and disinterested, as though he was annoyed at having to debate the merits of his re-election — especially against an opponent he clearly despised.
After four years of the media industrial complex in New York and Washington touting Obama’s unmatched intellect and transformational powers, after four years during which the president himself modestly compared his accomplishments to any of his predecessors with the possible exceptions of LBJ, FDR and Lincoln, could anyone seriously challenge the assertion that he deserved a second term? And do we really need to wait to update Mount Rushmore?
As it turned out, yes.
The first debate changed the trajectory of the campaign. In the days since, the Gallup tracking poll has showed a presidential race that is a dead heat or with Romney in the lead. Two subsequent debates in which — at least on points — President Obama appeared to win haven’t altered that trajectory. Why might that be?
Pure partisans are, by definition, incapable of seeing the other side’s merits. For them, the debates were a foregone conclusion. For Obamafied Democrats, the entire election was a foregone conclusion, the only question being how many seats in the House and Senate they would gain.
Yet even at this late date in our highly politicized, media-saturated society, there is a segment of the electorate — 5 percent, maybe 10 percent — that is still undecided or can be swayed. For them, the debates — rather than being a foregone conclusion — proved to be conclusive. Even in the second and third debates in which Obama thrilled his base by being more aggressive and belittling Romney, even in these debates that he ostensibly won, he did so at the cost of being more petulant, less likeable and less presidential.
In the third debate last week, Romney — to the dismay of Republicans — failed to go on the attack against the president over Benghazi and largely agreed with his foreign policy agenda.
Obama surrogates were left flummoxed by a candidate who they had formerly depicted as a reckless warmonger but who they now derided as a peacenik. On Twitter, one prominent liberal commentator questioned Romney’s “ability to be trusted as a steadfast defender of U.S.” Imagine the howls of indignation if a prominent conservative had written the same about President Obama.
If Romney loses, critics will second-guess his decision not to go after Obama’s increasingly tortured narrative of the Benghazi debacle during the final debate. If Obama loses, it will be because — after four years — the 2012 debates finally pulled back the curtain on the fiction of hope and change, and because they exposed a churlish incumbent who is much smaller than the office he occupies.