So, that’s it. The most momentous debate season in the recent history of presidential elections has come and gone. The debates managed to (at least briefly) change the race's narrative. But they ended with a whimper. This last face-off in particular might not make much of a difference due to the simple fact that it was so boring. With the exception of a few memorable lines, even dedicated news junkies were likely counting down the minutes until it was all over.
For whatever it’s worth though, there’s little doubt among the pundits that President Obama won this round. That doesn’t mean he managed to trounce Mitt Romney as readily as some Democrats would like to believe. After all, everyone expects the president to have a better handle on foreign policy and Romney didn’t just successfully pull off the looking-presidential bit, he also avoided getting pushed to the right and coming off as a warmonger, probably the one thing that could have really hurt him with undecideds.
For more, let’s get to the pundits.
The key to analyzing the debate properly is understanding what each candidate’s goals were. Romney was trying to position himself as a centrist alternative, Obama was trying to win. “In a sense, they both succeeded,” writes Jonathan Chait in New York. The National Journal’s Ron Fournier agrees with that overall analysis, saying that while “Obama won Monday night’s debate on points,” Romney “held his own” meaning that “the state of the race is likely unchanged.”
Still, that doesn't change the overall conclusion that “this was a one-sided win for Obama,” as the Atlantic’s James Fallows writes, adding that Romney “put up his worst showing.” Time’s Joe Klein agrees, noting that Obama won “cleanly and decisively, on both style and substance.” It’s not just that it was “a strong debate for Obama,” writes Klein, “it was a clever one.”
While Romney is winning praise in conservative circles for his generally restrained performance, there’s also some frustration that he didn’t at the very least try to put more of an emphasis on highlighting his differences with the president. “It was often painful to watch Romney blur the difference between them,” writes the National Review’s Jonah Goldberg. “Still, I think he was smart not to take the bait.” Several conservative-leaning commentators have been quick to say that Obama’s aggressiveness was evidence that he is worried. “The president’s visible frustration tonight suggests he knows he is losing,” writes Ed Rogers in the Washington Post.
Yet the president’s frustrations may have had more to do with frustration that he went to the debate ready to argue against statements Romney had made on the campaign trail but greatly softened on the Florida stage. “A viewer who hadn't tuned into the campaign before Monday night might have wondered what all the shouting was about,” notes the Los Angeles Times.
Talking Point Memo’s Josh Marshall isn’t buying attempts to defend Romney’s performance. “Romney looked pained and rambling through most of the debate,” he writes. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Romney sweat like that, literally or figuratively.”
At the very least, Romney’s “relative meekness … when compared to Obama’s A-game, reflects a more confident campaign, or at least one that is relatively at ease with the flow of the race,” notes Marc Ambinder in The Week. For anyone watching at home though, Romney went to such lengths to try to play down any differences he had with the president that it likely “raised a question not helpful to Romney’s case,” writes Michael Hirsh in the National Journal, “why replace the man in the Oval Office.”
Some might be willing to cut their losses and call the debate a draw. That’s the road Time’s Mark Halperin seems to take when he gives each candidate a B+, writing that Romney “completed the trifecta of appearing as the President’s semiotic equal in every debate.” Even if that assessment is playing it too safe, Obama’s decisive victory may not mean much in the long run because “he didn’t take Romney out,” writes the Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik. “The GOP challenger stayed in the ring with him even if he got a little bloody.”
That’s why it seems clear that if there were any real losers Monday night it was the voters. Not to mention all those watching across the globe who got a depressing view of what the men vying to be the next president think are the world’s most important issues. “The vast majority of the most consequential foreign policy matters (along with the world's nations) were completely ignored in lieu of their same repetitive slogans on the economy,” writes the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald. “In sum, it was a perfect microcosm of America's political culture.”
Read more of Slate's election coverage.