If you followed my tweets during the Obama-Romney debate for the Los Angeles Times panel earlier tonight, my sense from the very beginning was that Romney turned his fading campaign around. Obama's purpose was to solidify his lead and offer a vision that would help turn out his base. He did neither. The tweets tell the sad story.
Romney stayed competitive as a result of the debate, avoided mistakes, shed right-wing image, ended unscathed.— Tom Hayden (@TomEHayden) October 4, 2012
Obama never gained the offensive, never offered an image of a better second term, did little to motivate the base.— Tom Hayden (@TomEHayden) October 4, 2012
There are various psychological or "character" explanations floating around to explain the unexpected result. Leaving those aside, there is a possible political-ideological explanation. Obama followed a certain centrist logic that Romney just was not logical, as if logic determines elections. Obama said Romney was not explaining what tax loopholes he would close in order to reduce the deficit without raising middle-class taxes. Obama criticized Romney for repealing Obamacare without explaining what he would replace it with. Likewise, Obama faulted Romney for opposing Dodd-Frank without explaining how he would regulate Wall Street. The apparent intent of Obama's line of attack was to show voters that there was no there there, that Romney was all smoke-and-mirrors. When thus exposed, Romney would be rejected.
This line of attack was previewed, more boldly and with more time to elaborate, by Bill Clinton at the Democratic convention. The whole problem with Romney's platform, Clinton said, was "mathematical". It did not add up. Case closed. Game over.
Obama apparently did not want to frame the difference as ideological, between progressives and conservatives, between the 99% and Wall Street, or even on the basis of his opening assault on Romney's connection to Bain. Making Romney's problem mainly a mathematical one meant a lessening of any populist emphasis on the immorality of inequality.
Obama's questioning of Romney's proposal for an additional two trillion dollars for the Pentagon was formulated in a similar way. It was two trillion more than the Pentagon had even asked for, the President said, as if the question was about bureaucratic budgetary needs rather than moral or policy purposes.
Obama acted almost as if the main purpose of the presidency is largely to balance the books and prevent deficits (though to be sure, he largely defended Medicaid). Romney, on the other hand, masked his One Percent agenda by an essentially faith-based belief in corporations and the military. As quoted in Mother Jones on September 17, Romney actually believes his election by itself will magically restore such confidence that our economic problems will be solved without government having to do much at all. According to Romney:
"...my own view is that if we win on November 6th, there will be a great deal of optimism about the future of this country. We’ll see capital come back and we’ll see — without actually doing anything — we’ll actually get a boost in the economy."
Obama spoke tonight like a governing centrist, not like a determined reformer still following his North Star on a long journey. He may feel that the country he leads is more conservative than liberal, but it certainly is not as right-wing as the Tea Party whose hero is Romney's running mate. Attacking Romney's funny math may be a comfortable stance for a centrist incumbent, but Obama may lose the election if he downplays the issues of fairness and equality and fails to challenge Romney's mystique of market fundamentalism.
After a brief period in which it appeared that the Republican nightmare was behind us, everything is now shifting again. The bad guys got away.