But here’s the crazy thing: For the first time in a long time, many Democrats are asking the same thing about Obama—so perplexed, confounded, and just plain pissed off are they about his dismal turn in Denver. The mystery of what happened to the president there is perhaps a bit less mysterious than it seemed on first inspection. Five factors, I think, were at work.
First, for weeks now, the Obama campaign has been playing it safe, sitting on its lead, executing a four-corners offense and a prevent defense; Obama’s low-altitude, low-risk speech in Charlotte was part of that game plan, which in Denver amounted to an effort to avoid unforced errors. Second, consistent with that, Obama had been advised essentially to ignore Romney and talk directly to voters; as his strategist David Axelrod put it the next day, “He made a choice last night to answer the questions that were asked and to talk to the American people about what we need to move forward, and not to get into serial fact-checking with Governor Romney, which can be an exhausting, never-ending pursuit.” Third, Obama’s team is intensely focused on preserving his main electoral advantage, which is his likability. Indeed, much of his debate prep was spent coaching him to contain his simmering disdain for Romney; onstage, that seems to have translated into Obama’s studious refusal to make eye contact with his rival. Fourth, incumbent presidents become accustomed to being accorded unceasing deference (and gratuitous toadying); it’s been four years since anyone got up in Obama’s grill and told him he was full of shit, and the shock of it was palpable. And fifth, Obama was prepared to debate the Romney who has been on display for the past two years, the Romney imitated by John Kerry in debate prep—a very different Romney from the one who took the podium. Like the rest of us, Obama was gobsmacked.
To be abundantly clear: These are explanations, not excuses, for there is no excusing the inexcusable. Obama’s advisers, and Obama himself, are appropriately chastened about what transpired. In the aftermath, I asked a campaign official if we would see a different Obama at Hofstra. “We’d better and we will” came the reply.
Obama’s people took some comfort in the notion that Romney’s victory was purely stylistic—and that on substance, he had opened himself up to new lines of attack. On taxes, Medicare, and much else, the GOP nominee’s performance was littered with evasions, distortions, and outright falsehoods. “It was a very vigorous performance, but one that was devoid of honesty,” Axelrod said.
But Romney’s late-stage repositioning presents a strategic conundrum for Obama’s campaign. Earlier this year, when it became clear that the former Massachusetts governor would be their opponent, Team Obama wrestled with two different, and at least ostensibly contradictory, framings of Romney: on one hand, as a flip-flopping phony, and on the other, as a right-wing extremist. Bill Clinton, among others, advised the campaign to abandon the former and embrace the latter. “They tried to do this with me, the flip-flopper thing,” Clinton counseled, but “it just doesn’t work”—because voters don’t mind so long as the candidate is flipping and flopping in their direction.
The Obamans came to agree, jettisoning their condemnations of Romney as coreless. Instead, just as they had done to John McCain in 2008, they relentlessly sought to portray Romney as a clone of George W. Bush—and as pursuing an agenda indistinguishable from that of the tea-quaffing congressional Republicans, which swing voters look upon unkindly. And Romney, somewhat mystifyingly, played right into the caricature.
At the debate in Denver, however, Romney’s long-awaited Etch-a-Sketch moment finally arrived. Now Obama confronts a choice: stick with assailing his rival as an extremist, shift to pummeling him as a flip-flopper, or synthesize the two angles of attack. Almost certainly, Obama will embrace the synthetic approach—and, n.b., it can be done, as Bush proved in 2004 against Kerry. The Democratic bed-wetters (as David Plouffe called them in 2008) are already in panic mode, worried that Obama has lost his mojo. Chances are that they will be proved wrong, that Obama will raise his game in the final innings as he has so many times before. But if Hofstra turns out to be another Denver, what is now a sprinkle will become a flood, and with good reason.