The energetic and assertive challenger with the stinging one liners vs. the rambling and ill-at-ease incumbent who wanted to be anywhere else but here – for seasoned observers of Israeli politics, Wednesday night’s debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney was a direct descendent of one held 16 years ago between Binyamin Netanyahu and Shimon Peres. And that was a debate that played no small role, Obama supporters beware, in pushing Bibi over the edge and ensuring his ultra-slim victory in the 1996 elections.
Bibi, like Romney, was well-trained, eager for battle and overjoyed to finally be sharing the same stage with his rival. Peres, like Obama, seemed weary, spoke haltingly, refused to look his rival in the eye and seemed outraged by the very notion that such an upstart would dare to attack him so harshly in public. Netanyahu was sharp, focused, eloquent and hungry while Peres was complacent and haggard and spoke in a didactic and monotonous tone that drove his listeners to distraction. Peres, like Obama, made the cardinal mistake of underestimating his challenger.
Of course, history doesn’t necessarily repeat itself and Obama, unlike Peres, has two more debates to try and make up for his dismal performance on Thursday night in Denver. Nonetheless, it was a rare moment indeed in this politicized political season when the gleeful faces on Fox and the gloomy glares on MSNBC united to reflect a rare consensus that in this all-important first round, Romney was the clear winner and performed above expectations while Obama came in a distant last and did worse than anyone could foresee.
It didn’t hurt, of course, that Romney spent most of the last week cramming, rehearsing and simulating the Denver debate, while Obama thought he could make do with a day or two of haphazard preparations between campaign stops. It was also apparent that Romney has participated in no less than 23(!) debates during the recent Republican primaries, while Obama’s last debate against John McCain was held on October 15, 2008, and ever since then he’s been mostly surrounded, as presidents usually are, by people who try to steer clear of challenging or even interrupting him.
The president’s advisers tried to provide a rationale for Obama’s disappointing performance and his inexplicable failure to attack Romney’s weak points, including Bain Capital, tax returns and the secretly-taped “47% speech”, saying that the president wanted to “rise above” the partisan bickering and to “speak directly” to the American people. But debates are first and foremost a blood sport, a showdown between two candidates, and the winner is usually the one who draws first blood from his rival rather than the one who opts for some complex subliminal messaging that is usually lost on its target audience.
This is especially true in such a tedious 90 minute ordeal that was excruciatingly boring even for addicted politicophiles, as I found out when the dedicated group of Americans I was privileged to watch the debate with had to pinch themselves silly and drink copious quantities of espresso just to stay awake, and were then visibly and audibly relieved when Jim Lehrer finally announced that the debate was over. I can only assume that the vast majority of Americans tuned out of the debate shortly after it started, though by that time the damage was done, Romney had established his dominance and Obama appeared to be looking around for the nearest emergency exit.
Romney’s success comes at a rare time of gaffe-free momentum for the Republican candidate, after the Administration’s Libyan Embassy debacle, Vice President Biden’s “buried middle class” statement and the recycled 2007 Obama speech “rediscovered” by Fox News, which may not sway any swing voters but certainly excites the Republicans’ conservative base.
Only time will tell, as commentators like to say, whether all of this will be enough to undo Obama’s daunting advantage in the polls in battleground states, but one projection seems quite safe and certain: to the next debate on October 16, Obama won’t show up tired, smug and bored out of his mind, as he did in Denver.
Follow me on Twitter @ChemiShalev
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