Romney wins, but don't kill yourself (yet)

Waiting for last night's first debate between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt I knew these things: 1. Precedent favors the challenger; 2. Romney was a better debater than most recognized -- or wanted to credit; 3. History suggests no meaningful correlation between debate performance and electoral victory; 4. No modern-day incumbent in a two-way race has lost.

Then why was I disturbed when Romney clearly won by consistently and convincingly misrepresenting the facts of his shady programs? Romney practiced the big lie -- really a series of significant falsehoods that are more toxic when bundled together than considered separately -- from the opening bell (my tax plan works) to his closing statement (the US can not afford to cut defense spending, but rather must increase it).

COVER STORY: How much damage could a President Romney do? Let us count the ways.

Never mind that moderator Jim Lehrer had less snap than a bingo caller at a pensioners' retreat. Romney ran rings around Lehrer. Where was Obama's rope-a-dope? Obama tanked the minute he opened his mouth, ignoring Lehrer's predictable but relevant question about job creation by instead recognizing the occasion as the 30th anniversary of his marriage to Michelle. Get over yourself, Barack.

Romney, in response, was vacuous and vague, but was sufficiently focused to sound at least like a third-rate Milton Freedman.

Yes, Obama had his moments. Yes, Romney's malarkey will come back to haunt him.  Yes, as a black man with a white-guy problem Obama probably worked not to appear strident. Yes, as president, Obama was likely aware of being the embodiment of national dignity. But come on! What was with the lack of engagement? My former Phoenix colleague, Camille Dodero, now at Gawker, wrote on Twitter that Obama looked like a guy getting yelled at by his girl friend. Well, Obama deserved it.

We will know by November 6 whether the 2012 election will conform to past practice. These are not, however, days in which to bank of some iron law of history favoring Obama. After a tepid Republican convention and Romney's Olympic gaffs, the 47 percent outrage, and his sniveling performance regarding Libya, Obama should enjoy a commanding lead in the polls.

That Obama is not more clearly ahead is attributable to many factors, including the novel and vexing nature of the economic crisis and the anxiety and pain it spawns; the unpredictable and fast-moving rate of world-wide change; and the recalcitrance and bloody-mindedness of Republicans, who sometimes threaten to move beyond an unhelpful, tight-assed authoritarianism and into a troubling pre-fascistic frenzy.

Dire times. Obama helps neither his candidacy nor the nation by sticking his head up his grey-flannelled butt.

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