Mr. President, I've been there -- I know something about debates.
When I ran against Paul Soglin in 2003, he had been mayor off and on for fourteen years. I had never seen a city council meeting all the way through. And yet, when we debated twenty times in six weeks, I felt like I played him to a draw or won each time.
Fast forward to 2011. Now Soglin had been out of office for a decade and a half, and I had been mayor for eight years. I knew everything and he was relying on memory and dabs of information here and there. And yet, I felt, and most people who were honest with me told me, that Soglin bested me on all but maybe one or two of a dozen meetings during that campaign.
So, in trying to figure out how Barack Obama could have come up short versus Mitt Romney last night (and I didn't think the president's performance was that bad) I think I understand.
In a debate, there are some disadvantages to incumbency. For one thing, you still have to do the job and prepare to debate while your opponent has nothing to do but focus on you. Many people told me that I looked tired in 2011. That's because I was tired. I'd have a long, tense day at the office dealing with everything that was swirling around the Act 10 protests at the Capitol plus the day-to-day business of the job. Then I'd show up at an evening debate. I was not at my perkiest.
Similarly, I'm sure Obama couldn't exactly take several days off from being president to do nothing but get rested and ready for Wednesday night. With no other responsibilities except preparing for the debate Mitt Romney could do just that.
Then there's the problem of knowing too much. In 2011, Soglin would tick off six or seven things we needed to do about poverty, for example. His answer was crisp and forceful. I could see heads nodding in agreement. Then I'd get up and talk about the fact that we had increased the Community Service budget by twice the rate of inflation, created the Challenged Neighborhoods Program and low-income bus fare program, spent millions of dollars improving Allied Drive, et cetera, et cetera. I could see people nodding off to sleep. My actual detailed accomplishments were trumped in debate by Paul's glossy, general statements. Last night, I saw Obama fall into the same trap on issue after issue. He had the substance, but he didn't have the spark.
And finally there's the issue of proximity. Whatever it is I did that you didn't like, you remembered it because it had just happened. Paul had been out of office for fourteen years. Nobody remembered much of anything bad about him. He could live on promises and vague recollections about how great things used to be, but I had to live off my record. Romney had the same advantage last night.
So, on substance, Romney was awful. His answer on health care was especially galling. Yeah, he had a bipartisan agreement in Massachusetts. That was because he had a Democratic legislature that wanted what he wanted and was willing to work with him. Obama bent over backwards to get Republican support for his health plan, but the GOP made clear statements that they wouldn't work with him because they wanted him to fail politically.
Many of us wanted the president to take that answer and shove it back down Romney's throat. But he didn't. I don't know why. Maybe he was tired or distracted by actually doing the job that Romney wants, or maybe his handlers had convinced him that he could lay back on the ropes and let Romney punch away and spend his energy.
That didn't work. Debates are won and lost, to the extent they ever are won or lost, more on style than substance. On style points, the decision clearly went to Romney this time.
This was a setback for the president, but it's not the end of the world. The attention now turns to the vice-presidential debate. All of a sudden a lot is riding on Joe Biden's shoulders. Luckily, he doesn't have a day job that's all that demanding.