As Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama debated Wednesday evening it was possible to detect, if one was alert, the ground of American politics shift beneath one’s feet. Sometime during the first 45 minutes or so, when it became clear that Romney, not moderator Jim Lehrer, was in command, the tectonic plates of Obama's ego and of reality crashed together. The tremor that followed was pronounced. What had been to the Democrats and the media an irrevocable fact—that Romney’s campaign was in shambles and Obama’s reelection assured—crashed resoundingly. Like all earthquakes the convulsion produced panic, in this case among liberals. Their response was typical of their kind: They devoured their own.
"A liberal," said Robert Frost, "is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel." Wednesday saw poetic confirmation of his aphorism. Not only was Obama unable to take his own side against Romney; afterwards Democrats and the liberal media could defend neither their fellow partisan Obama nor their colleague Lehrer. The hysterical and self-destructive frenzy that resulted was nothing less than spectacular. Patrons of social media could watch, in real time, as the president’s most ferocious champions realized that the avatar of hope and change could not withstand a direct and withering criticism; could convey only diffidence and contempt and exhaustion when confronted by a talented opponent; and could not possibly live up to the mythological expectations that his devotees had constructed for him.
Liberals hurriedly searched for scapegoats as the edifice collapsed. They closed in on Obama and Lehrer. Even the most diehard Obama defenders did not accept the ridiculously self-serving spin, put out by the president's employees, that somehow Romney, the buttoned-down Mormon grandpa, won on "style" over the global celebrity Obama, winner of the Grammy Award and friend of Jay-Z and Beyoncé and Anna Wintour. The president, liberals said, lost the first debate not because his economic record is indefensible and his second-term agenda is nonexistent, but because he was not sufficiently nasty. "Obama should watch MSNBC," Chris Matthews hilariously suggested, as though a cocooned president would benefit from further insularity. "His effete, wonkish lectures may have jolted a lot of independents into giving Romney a second look," lamented Andrew Sullivan, a "conservative of doubt" who now doubts Obama can win in November. "How could he go through an entire debate without mentioning or even hinting at that 47 percent remark?" wondered a befuddled and exasperated Joe Klein. Million-dollar Democratic Super PAC donor Bill Maher directed his acid wit at an unlikely and hitherto untouchable target: the man to whom he had contributed so much. "Obama," he tweeted, "looks like he DOES need a teleprompter [sic]."
Left unmentioned was the fact that the liberals were criticizing Obama for the very aspects of his personality they so often celebrate. After the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 Matthews praised this "cold-blooded" president, whom he now excoriates for aloofness and apathy. Sullivan famously argued that Obama’s high-mindedness would take the country beyond the cultural fights of the Baby Boom generation, but when Obama took a high-minded approach in his closing statement Wednesday night, and floated above the debate at 30,000 feet, Sullivan called it "f—ing sad, confused, and lame." For years liberals have praised Obama’s intellect, fluency, demeanor, and dignity—qualities they now worry might be too "professorial" for the debate-watching public.
Did the scales just fall from their eyes? Had they really not considered the possibility that Obama might not be as formidable, or as "likable," as they had thought? Or had they been so blinded by their preconceived notions about the man, so devoted to the idea that his opponents are nothing more than fundamentalist servants of Moloch, that they could not imagine what would happen when he encountered, face-to-face, a clever, smart, cogent, and determined opponent?
Whatever sympathy and charity liberals had to bestow was given solely to the president. Some made excuses: He is the chief executive, he is a busy man, the crown weighs heavy on the brow, the world, the Greater Middle East in particular, seems to be falling apart, and the economy is not growing satisfactorily, as Romney reminded Obama and America again and again. It is all so very hard. And of course Obama can turn one horrible debate performance around. Reagan did so in 1984. So did George W. Bush in 2004 (though Bush’s performance at that first debate was better than Obama’s performance at this one). "Obama seemed incredibly distracted and somewhere else," tweeted Michael Moore. "His mind wasn’t on the debate. What was he told before he went on the stage?" Perhaps the answer might explain the lousy job he did.
Jim Lehrer was not so lucky. No apologies for him. Prior to Wednesday Lehrer had been canonized as the patron saint of the Commission on Presidential Debates. His mere presence endowed the occasion with ceremony and a sort of historical grandeur. Lehrer explained to an interested world how he would allow the candidates to interact with one another. He said early on that he wanted to emphasize the differences between the Republican and the Democrat. That is exactly what happened. Among the distinctions: One candidate was awake, and the other was not. One candidate had specific attacks and rebuttals, and the other did not. One candidate spoke energetically and without interruption, and the other did not. One candidate, Romney, made it perfectly clear that he truly wants to be president next January 20, and the incumbent seemed like he could take it or leave it. He may have to leave it.
One wonders whether the criticism of Lehrer would be the same if the roles had been reversed. The AP report on reactions to Lehrer’s "moderation" was brutal. The bipartisan consensus seems to be that Lehrer totally lost control of the debate. The use of the verb "control" is revealing: Since Obama declared his candidacy for president in 2007, his biography and message and agenda and record have been remarkably "controlled," moderated, and protected by a pliant media.
This was the first debate in Obama's career in which he was pitted against a viable and competitive and confrontational Republican. The few times Obama has been challenged seriously, mano-a-mano, from Joe the Plumber to Bret Baier to Jorge Ramos, he’s become sarcastic, irritable, and put-upon. His strategy has been to limit contact to friendlies. Indeed, it may have been precisely Obama’s inaccessibility that has led to the odd situation in which chance verbal gaffes made by the principals—"The private sector is doing fine"; "you didn’t build that"; "put y’all back in chains"; "my job is not to worry about those people"—drive media coverage. Lehrer, intentionally or not, upended the dynamic of the campaign by ceding "control" of the debate to the candidates. Obama was vulnerable and exposed.
The AP quoted Free Beacon aficionado Michael Tomasky, who pronounced that this was "Definitely Lehrer’s last debate." That is one Tomasky prediction that actually could prove true. Sad that a journalist of Lehrer’s talents and experience could be so insouciantly dismissed because he failed to protect the image and prerogatives of a failed president. Sad, but also telling. The wolf pack that is the contemporary liberal media is so reckless and slavish in its devotion to liberalism that it will turn on a moment’s notice against every alpha and beta and omega that strays. These aren’t journalists. They’re cannibals.