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An Audience of 60 Million Watched a Presidential Disaster

Obama turned what seemed like a rout into a contest again.

This article first appeared on Truthout.

"I don't know how he let Romney get away with the crap he threw out tonight." - Chris Matthews, MSNBC, 10/03/2012

It is never a pleasant experience to lead an article with a Chris Matthews quote, but in this instance, it suits the moment. Something like 60 million people tuned in Wednesday night to watch President Obama and Governor Romney face each other in the first debate of the election. What they got, in the end, was a mess.

First of all, and let's just get this one out of the way, it is my devout hope that Jim Lehrer has moderated his last debate. The man lost control of the situation from the beginning, interrupted the participants on multiple occasions, and allowed Mr. Romney to steamroll through time limit after time limit. It was as if some recently-unemployed NFL replacement referee wandered onstage and took the moderator's chair. Lehrer seemed to have no conception of the purpose of his role in the event, threw flags that were not warranted, and called holding penalties that only served to interrupt the flow. Jim Lehrer, sad to say, made David Gregory's performance during the Scott Brown-Elizabeth Warren debate look like Masterpiece Theater by comparison, and that, my friends, is saying something.

But that gripe only goes so far. Mr. Obama, I am sure, was counseled to be cautious on Wednesday night; after all, he's ahead, and all the pressure was on Romney to come through in a big way. For my part, I had high hopes that Mr. Obama would be aggressive with Romney, pin him down on any number of the contradictions and outright fabrications that define the GOP candidate's campaign, and park the argument once and for all in front of the largest audience this race is likely to see: this guy is a fatuous gasbag, a rudderless bullshit artist of the purest ray serene, and here is the proof...and here, and here, and here, and also here and here, and here, and also here.


It did not happen that way.

Three moments from Wednesday night stand out for me in high relief.

The first came when Mr. Romney re-re-re-re-re-told  the $716 billion Medicare liearound 43 minutes into the debate. To wit: "Under the president's plan, he cuts Medicare by $716 billion, takes that money out of the Medicare trust fund and uses it to pay for Obamacare," said Romney.  This is a brazen lie, which was debunked in front of a massive television audience by former President Bill Clinton during the Democratic National Convention to lethal effect. This was around the tenth outright lie Romney told on Wednesday night, but would not be the last. Mr. Obama, in that moment, had a golden opportunity to blow Mr. Romney right out of the room. By calling Romney out on that one epic deception, by driving the point home hard and deep, Obama would have in the process called every other assertion Romney made, and would make, into question. Tag a liar for being a liar, and he stays a liar in the eyes of all in observance.

But that great big fat hanging meatball of a pitch sailed right over the plate, and Mr. Obama did not swing at it. A dozen other like-sized lies meatballed their way slowly and ponderously through the strike zone as the evening ground on, and in similar fashion, Mr. Obama turned up his nose and allowed them to slap into the catcher's mitt unmolested.

The second moment came during the "Role of Government" segment. Both candidates, when asked about their opinions on the role of government in American society, delivered a word-salad that best represents...well, nothing, really, at all. Word-salad is made of iceberg lettuce: it has no nutritional value, very little taste, but will pass through the system without upsetting the digestion. Romney and Obama both went into safe and happy mode during this portion of the debate, which I am sure pleased the Romney camp to no end, because it was during that segment that they were most in peril.

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