Clint’s empty chair sees its bookings increase

You know you’re in a spot of trouble – as a democrat – when the Manhattan elite start recycling a joke they dismissed just a month ago.  In The New Yorker, no less!  Yikes.  (It’s actually become a bit of a meme since that first debate.)

That the Obama campaign has had to resort to the sad cry of a loser – “You only won ’cause you cheated!” – indicates a couple things:

  1. You’ve got to tell yourself and your team you were robbed unfairly, because the alternative (the other guys are better) is too shattering to contemplate.  To lose the messianic flavor the campaign has had since Day 1 would crush morale.
  2. The strategy you placed all your chips on – Romney is radical and unfit – just suffered a blow, perhaps a mortal blow.  So what can you do now?  Can’t run on your record.  Can’t run on the unqualified experience of your opponent.  Next up:  Chicago rules.  Take the demonization up a notch, call him a liar (they said that about Ryan too…), find surrogates to trash his Mormon faith, hit him with anything nearby that looks handy.

Yuval Levin explains what I’ve called the talking caveman moment: since they generally believe conservatives all dropped out of 8th grade and wear a sheet, when a liberal encounters an intelligent, principled, and informed conservative they’re as dumbstruck as if they’d stumbled onto a talking caveman.  When the country splits on the issues it’s not because half your fellow citizens are monsters or morons.  Politics in a free society is defined by disagreement.  There’s a good argument on the other side, flowing from a different set of operating assumptions.  Consensus is for totalitarian regimes.

This is, first and foremost, an instance of something that a lot of conservatives in Washington have run across when debating liberals: Because they basically control the mainstream media, and because they have created for themselves a fictional conservative worldview (evident in many an Aaron Sorkin project and Barack Obama speech) rather than confront the actual conservative worldview, liberals are often caught off guard when faced with an actual argument for positions they disagree with. What we’ve seen in the wake of the debate is that some on the Left are so wedded to their imaginary right-wingers that when their actual opponents advance positions or make arguments that are different from those imaginary ones they will call those actual opponents fakes and liars. They believed their own caricature of Mitt Romney, and his unwillingness to play into it strikes them as dishonest. Or put another way: Confronted with evidence of their own dishonesty about who Romney is and what he stands for, they call the evidence a lie.

Here are a few good quips about the debate:

  • John Fonte: Last night revealed that Republicans have their first articulate presidential candidate since Reagan in 1984.
  • Peter Kirsanow: America saw Obama as he is: Banal, overrated, unprepared, impressively unknowledgeable — wrapped in a veneer of celebrity sophistication.
  • Michael Knox Beran: Last night was Romney’s Austerlitz. Will November 6 be Obama’s Waterloo?
  • Jay Nordlinger: Romney can do significantly better than he did last night: He can be crisper, more commanding, and more moving.
  • John Fund: [The media] turned on [Obama] like a pack of howling hyenas, perhaps demonstrating that deep down they know their man is an emperor with few clothes.
  • Michael Walsh: If last night’s debate did anything, it ought to bury once and for all the myth of Barack Obama’s silver tongue.
  • Stanley Kurtz: This isn’t just a debate loss, for Obama, it forces him to shift his strategy when no good alternatives exist. That’s a big deal.
  • Yuval Levin: On the whole, Mitt Romney looked like a guy who wants to be elected president tonight, and Barack Obama looked like a guy who wants to be left alone.

UPDATE:  VDH chimes in with this:

In such an attenuated career, we forget that Obama’s prior debate appearances have been rare, and against undistinguished debaters in group fashion during the Democratic primary and John McCain, and, in fact, were themselves largely just workmanlike and just enough to get by. His real and only political interests (and skills) are in caricaturing opponents, in a sort of trash-talking sports fashion (“you’re likeable enough, Hilary,” “fat-cat banker,” “corporate jet owner,” the limb-lopping, tonsil-pulling physicians, etc.) or in whipping up a crowd (“get in their faces,” “gun to a knife fight,” “punish our enemies,” etc.)

Yet perhaps the reason for Obama’s reluctance to face questions and counter-argument was not just that Obama is not very good at it and resents doing his homework (“a drag”), and not just that his economic and foreign policy records are dismal and would be hard to defend under scrutiny, but largely that he has had scant need to work on debating or sharpening his analytical skills — given the investment of the media and popular culture in his success.

An often distracted and diffident Obama has astutely understood that his own fortunes were in some strange way a referendum on the liberal sensibilities of legions of neurotic but influential elites. That realization had excused him from much of the mundane worries of other politicians — almost as if problematic things like polls, government statistics, laws surrounding lay-off notices, or controversies (from Fast and Furious to the Libya consulate disaster) would all be properly adjusted by others more interested in his success than he in his own.

How else could he be so recklessly careless in his effusive praise of the odious racist Rev. Wright, or so patently insincere in his demagogic and racialist rants before largely African-American audiences? How else could he simultaneously demonize the Bush anti-terrorism protocols while embracing or expanding nearly all of them, or so clearly provide his own arguments (e.g., deficit will be cut in half, if he hasn’t solved the problem, he would be a one-term president, etc.?) against himself?

Does all this mean that Obama cannot bounce back a bit in the next two debates? Not really.

Expectations have changed after the greatest audience in the history of presidential debates saw a veritable empty suit — or empty chair — on stage, without a helpful media follow-up question, or a “make no mistake about it” refrain to be had. Over 60 million now expect little at all from their president in the debate, so Obama will benefit from dismal expectations by just showing up as the incumbent and being addressed as “Mr. President.” The pressure on Romney to be even more impressive mounts. The realization that another rant by a liberal commentator could cement the reputation of Obama as an incompetent and add to the image of a hopelessly inept president will temper post-debate media anger. The moderator cannot afford to be laissez-faire in the fashion of Jim Lehrer, and will prove far more partisan. The media pressure to discount the importance of the debates themselves will increase.


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