Holy cow! What on earth was wrong with Barack Obama last night?
He seemed distracted, distant, and unprepared. As a thousand commentators have noted, Mitt Romney gave Obama plenty of openings for an aggressive stance, but he ignored them all. And instead of going on the offensive, he stayed on defense too much, lunging for the bait that Romney kept tossing at him. I've been worried about his chances before; the polls have been too close, and too weird. But now I'm really, really worried.
Whether these debates will matter, of course, is hard to predict. Larry Sabato's blog has an interesting look at that issue this morning. (Briefly: history indicates that debates seldom make a difference. But there have been a few exceptions. Maybe.)
The people the debates would affect are the relatively few voters who are still undecided. I'm not sure they learned much last night. The discussions were so long, the details so detailed, that I was exhausted after 30 minutes. Maybe that was because I had already put in a long day's work, and the hour was late. But that's the case for many, many voters.
The debate commission is trying something new this year: dividing some of the debates into 15-minute segments, ostensibly to allow candidates to discuss issues in more depth and more thoughtfully. So much for that idea. Instead, we heard the same phrases and charges repeated over and over and over.
My comments are focused on theater, obviously, not substance. But that underscores a problem: maybe "debate" isn't the right format. Maybe, instead, we should have lengthy interviews of each, by a variety of reporters. Maybe have each candidate provide some of the questions.
Last night, Jim Lehrer tried gamely to keep the train on the track. But Romney and Obama quickly figured out that they could go on and on, and there was absolutely nothing Lehrer could do about it.
I'm looking forward to seeing the media fact-check reports later today - although I'm not sure those will sway any voters either.
Mostly, I'm not sure I can sit through three more of these. I wouldn't want to be in the Obama camp this morning, assessing what they'll do next. The best Obama supporters like me can hope for, I guess, is that the debates don't matter. But that may leave it up to campaign ads.
There's a lot not to like about this year's campaign.