Did Mitt Romney win the first presidential debate between him and Barack Obama? Did Sitting Bull win at Little Big Horn?


You would have been surprised, if you had been the proverbial man (or woman) from Mars, to guess which candidate—the incumbent president of the United States or the former one-term governor of Massachusetts—had a better command of either the details of public policy. Obviously Mitt Romney did. And you would have gotten the sense that one of the two candidates had a sense of command and the other was hugely on the defensive. Romney was looking confident, with consistent smiles; Obama was constantly looking downward, on the defensive, irritated and—astonished.


Astonished, because during most of his public career Obama has been received by his audiences with undiluted adulation. He has been totally unused to being challenged on his talking points.


As a Democrat in Michigan in the 1960s, I opposed Romney’s father George Romney in his races for governor in 1962, 1964 and 1966. When he ran for president in 1968, he was unprepared for dealing with an unsympathetic press; the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press were, to varying degrees, pro-Republican in those days. When he ran for president in the 1968 cycle, he was caught off guard when local area Detroit TV talk show host Lou Gordon got him to admit that he was “brainwashed” by administration or military personnel in Vietnam. George Romney was used to being protected by the press from the consequences of spontaneous comments; when he wasn’t, because he had entered into the realm of national politics, he was caught off guard and, soon enough, his candidacy collapsed.


Barack Obama has a similar problem. The mainstream media has been playing protective guard around him for the last five or six years. He has seldom faced tough questioning, having managed to avoid open press conferences (as I recall) since last June. And of course mainstream media is extremely unanxious to ask him embarrassing questions about a whole host of issues. To his credit, moderator Jim Lehrer didn’t zero in on these things but didn’t prevent the interaction between the candidates from raising such questions.


Obama suffered tonight from his lack of scrutiny from mainstream media. As I like to say, there is nothing free in politics, but there is some question about when you pay the price. In this first debate Obama paid the price for the hands-off treatment he has received from mainstream media. His talking points, advanced by his spokesmen in the confidence that they will not be seriously challenged, were refuted by an energized and articulated and well-informed Mitt Romney. He stood there petulantly and pathetically, nonplussed by the fact that his flimsy talking points were effectively challenged.


The most important thing about these debates is that they give voters an idea of which candidate can take command for an office one of whose titles is commander-in-chief. Romney, in his interactions with Lehrer and with Obama, established that he is a man who can take command. Obama, through the whole debate, seemed like a man who cannot. Romney took command tonight and Obama looked irritable and weak. Americans don’t usually want irritatble and weak leaders as their commanders-in-chief.

Which one looked more like a president? Mitt Romney.