Barack Obama won the second of the three Presidential debates last night but he did not beat Mitt Romney as thoroughly as he had been beaten by the challenger in their first encounter. If you were compiling an aggregate score for the debates so far the President would still be behind.
I doubt Republicans will react to this modest reverse for Romney's fortunes with the kind of panic that liberals embraced two weeks ago. The Democratic meltdown helped turn a setback into a rout. Suddenly momentum - whatever that is - was with Romney and it was easy for Republican raiding parties to mop up Democratic stragglers and put them to the sword. Discipline matters in victory but it matters even more in defeat.
In truth, Romney's fightback had begun - albeit slowly - before the first debate. The debates, as we all know, don't usually change the fundamental dynamic of the race. But there is always a first time for everything and one should remember to more often caveat one's remarks with the reminder that the sample size for modern presidential elections remains small. The rules are not set in granite.
Even so, last night's victory - narrow, yet clear - offers Obama a chance to check Republican momentum. It means changing the story from an administration on the back foot (Hello Benghazi!) and a suddenly punch-drunk campaign (Enough with the Big Bird nonsense already, folks!)
So Obama's task last night was, in essence, to ask Romney a simple, traditional question: where's the beef? It was not one for which Romney had a particularly compelling answer. His suggestion for a universal deduction is not necessarily a bad one but saying “one way of doing that would be say everybody gets — I’ll pick a number — $25,000 of deductions and credits, and you can decide which ones to use” does rather bolster the impression the candidate might just be making a lot of this stuff up as he goes along.
And this lack of clarity or rigour with regard to Romney's tax and spending plans produced the only truly memorable line of the night. Having totted up Romney's figures the President turned to Romney to tell him: "You were an investor; you wouldn’t take such a sketchy deal”.
No he wouldn't and no matter how much Romney protested he had a "five point plan" Obama jabbed and jabbed again, poking Romney in the eye with the assertion that for all its apparent softness, Romney's plan is really a one point plan: the rich will do better.
Not that Romney always helped himself. For some reason he used his closing remarks to stress that he'd be a president for 100% of the American people. This was an idiotic thing to say because, as he should know by now, 100% is a prompt to remind people about that whole unfortunate 47% thing. Sure enough, Obama pounced:
I believe Governor Romney is a good man. Loves his family, cares about his faith. But I also believe that when he said behind closed doors that 47 percent of the country considered themselves victims who refuse personal responsibility, think about who he was talking about. Folks on Social Security who’ve worked all their lives. Veterans who’ve sacrificed for this country. Students who are out there trying to hopefully advance their own dreams, but also this country’s dreams. Soldiers who are overseas fighting for us right now. People who are working hard every day, paying payroll tax, gas taxes, but don’t make enough income.
Bang bang, you're dead. And yet despite this more energetic, forceful, combative performance it remains the case that it's not always quite clear what a second Obama term is really for. More of the same but a bit better is not the greatest rallying call in electoral history. It is hard to escape the impression that Obama's campaign rests less on his own promises for a second term - which are themselves pretty vague - and rather more on the simple need to thwart Mitt Romney.
It may be that thwarting Romney is necessary but Not Being Mitt Romney is plainly a less popular and actually less necessary platform than Not Being George W Bush was four years ago. In other words, Romney isn't the only candidate with a sales problem.
Even though I think he was bested last night the debates have plainly helped Romney. Four years ago the debates diminished John McCain; they have elevated Romney. He enjoys debating and it shows. Obama does not and that shows too.