Facts are irrelevant.
The 1960 election established that form governs substance in presidential debates. JFK was crowned the victor in his head-to-head with Nixon not because of anything he said, but because he looked at ease before the camera, exuding confidence and sex appeal, while Nixon visibly perspired. Few remember what either candidate said during the 1960 debate. All remember the moisture on Nixon’s upper lip.
Last week’s showdown between President Obama and Governor Romney gave us more of the same. Romney was universally declared the winner because he appeared energetic and confident, while Obama was surprisingly and unexpectedly withdrawn.
The Democratic party has spent the days following the debate scrutinizing what Romney said last Wednesday, pointing to inconsistencies in his statements before the nation and questioning his honesty. But that does not alter the outcome of the initial contest. The time to highlight inconsistencies in Romney’s rhetoric was last week, when the cameras and the world’s attention were focused on our embattled President and his Republican challenger. And the person to attack those inconsistencies was Obama, not his disappointed supporters who have spent much of the week apologizing for the President’s lackluster performance and attempting to justify his uncharacteristic blunder.
Perhaps the President was affected by the altitude in Denver, as some have suggested. Or perhaps he was distracted by the on-going saga in the Arab world, something with which Obama, as president, must deal daily, while Governor Romney, whose full-time job is campaigning, focuses on mastering the art of verbal sparring.
Neither excuse suffices. President Obama dropped the ball on national TV, and opened the door for Romney and his backers to proclaim as wide open the race for leader of the free world.
The President will learn from his mistake. He will spend more time preparing for Round Two of the debates and come out swinging. What he says will not matter. How he says it will.
He will hope to erase the memory of last week’s performance, reminding the nation and the world that his election four years ago was due largely to the charisma he exuded. He was a rock star in the world of politics. But stars can fade, particularly for a president who fails to seize the opportunity to separate himself from his opponent and appears to all aloof, disinterested, and decidedly non-presidential.