Let’s stipulate at the outset that, for Obama and his supporters, his debate performance Wednesday night bordered on the worst case scenario. To say he was off his game would suggest he was in the game -- that he had a game! For most of the evening Obama looked like he was having an out of body experience… no, call it an out of mind, out of strategy experience. There was no vital in his élan.
The President looked like a tired, limp challenger in need of hydration and some emergency power napping. Mitt Romney, often with conviction, certitude and ginned up moral outrage, looked the part of a President. He looked nothing like the doofus who oozed gaffes, frozen, vapid looks and verbal pratfalls and ineptitudes during the GOP primaries. Was Romney’s pre-presidential debate image real or was he just channeling Muhammad Ali’s vaunted Rope-a-dope ring strategy?
Worse, Obama looked distracted and at times like his train of thought jumped the track.
Who knows? Maybe Obama was exhausted, over-rehearsed, or “coming down with something.” Maybe it was Denver’s thin air. It’s hard to be verbally crisp when your mind is swimming in jello.
(An ineffectual moderator, Jim Lehrer, didn’t help matters, which I’ll get to in a moment.)
And let’s be candid. Pleasant myths and the hyperbole of hope aside, Obama’s oratory has often been disappointing, especially when speaking off-the-cuff. He’s much more inspiring, moving, energized and energizing when he’s rehearsed a speech and reading it off a teleprompter.
Obama clearly proved this in Denver. He slept through opportunities to hoist Mr. Romney on his own petard of half-truths, state’s rights vagaries and expedient jettisoning of his oft-stated social and economic positions. Wednesday night Romney epitomized what has been recently called the “post-truth” era. “I didn’t say that. I did? So what, let’s move on.”
So back to the drawing board, Mr. President. Un-deploy the debate and self-presentation strategy deployed last night. Try Plan B instead. If you want to be Presidential for another four years, you will have to look and act presidential under the glare of debate lighting and the probing TV cameras. Big smiles may disarm, but they won’t cut through the fog thrown up by a poster boy for the post-truth era.
But it wasn’t just Obama who wasn’t up to the task. He had a little help from PBS’s Jim Lehrer, who lost control of the debate from the get-go. He never reined in Mitt Romney’s run-on sentences or Romney’s strategy of brook no obstruction, tear up the track.
Out of the gate, Romney was laser-guided. As 40 minutes of prime time flew by Obama watched haplessly as the Republican high-stepper trampled on Mr. Lehrer’s bleats to halt.
It didn’t have to go down like that. If Lehrer had been provided with a badge and a loaded gun instead of a broken stop sign, it wouldn’t have been a one-sided debate. Lehrer needed something more arresting than his polite “times-up” reminder. All he was doing was shooting blanks.
How, you ask? Think Oscar night. Or the vaunted Vaudeville Hook. The Gong Show! Not literally. But almost.
At the Academy Awards, when a winner is droning on beatifying his manager, the orchestra musically hints that the end is nigh. Then, if necessary, with great decibel gusto, they drown him out. Even the most defiant stand down.
In vaudeville, someone offstage with a Shepard’s crook reaches out and literally pulls a bad act off the stage, usually to audience cheers and jeers.
On NBC’s 1970 daytime series, The Gong Show, if a celebrity judge considered an amateur act to be particularly bad, he or she could strike a large gong, forcing the performer to stop, BONG!.
Consider then, Lehrer’s moans, stutterings and pupil dilations to interrupt Romney. Add in, that the GOP challenger’s shameless bald dismissals of Lehrer were executed with steely, confidant impunity because there was no punity.
At the upcoming second Presidential debate at New York’s Hofstra University, moderator CNN's Candy Crowley could be empowered to gong, buzz or musically force any rebel without a pause into submission. If that failed, Ms. Crowley could be “programmed” to arise from her chair, march up to the dastard’s podium, plant her feet and “broken record” him until he relents into silence.
This protocol would have to be agreed to in advance by debaters. How could they refuse? Tactically, if one went along, the other could not say no for fear of looking bad.
Should tempers nevertheless reach DEFCON 1on air and a debater walks off stage in a huff, the debate continues: One debater, one moderator, and one empty chair. What Eastwoodian drama!