I read the news on the morning after the presidential debate, and I wondered if I hadn't noticed that on the previous evening Abraham Lincoln had taken on Elmer Fudd. Nearly everyone said that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney's performance was brilliant and triumphant, President Barack Obama's weak, even a "debacle." Did I misread it that badly?
But as I watched the debate again on Friday morning I considered how much we and the media -- liberal or conservative -- love a new narrative, and "Underdog Whips Overconfident, Smarty Pants Incumbent" is one of our favorites. But let's get a grip: The debate calls for two questions, and they both have the same answer.
First, did Romney do as well in the debate as many think? No.
He probably exceeded the expectations, but they were never high to begin with, and his staffers had been tamping them down for days.
Modern debates are largely about theatrics and the physical appearance of the debaters; Romney did fine in those categories. But it's worth at least a paragraph or two to note that a lot of what he actually said in the debate was misleading or just plain wrong.
Examples are plentiful, but consider Romney's charge that Obama has doubled the national deficit. Publications from The New York Times to The Christian Science Monitor have pointed out that when Obama took office in 2009, the deficit was already at $1.4 trillion. Now it's at $1.1 trillion. That's a lot of money, but it's less than $1.4 trillion. Just plain wrong.
There's much more, but I'll leave the facts to the fact checkers. Romney got good marks for his appearance and energy, but it's a stretch to call his manner "presidential." How about "pushy," instead? Obama may have revealed a moment of impatience with moderator Jim Lehrer, but Romney repeatedly talked over Lehrer, bullying past his efforts to keep the discussion under control.
In fact, Lehrer had a tough evening. Even if you intend to completely defund PBS, an institution that's significantly enhanced American culture at a cost of about 0.00014 percent of the budget, why would you throw it in the face of one of its great icons in front of a national television audience? Especially with a dismissive line like, "I like you, Jim." Thanks a lot, Mitt, that makes your contempt for PBS easier to take. Graceless? Condescending? Disrespectful? Yes. Presidential? No.
It's no wonder that in his brief overseas trip this summer, Romney managed to miff the British, the Poles, and the Palestinians. And the word is that the Spaniards aren't very happy about being singled out during the debate as Europe's poster child for economic disaster.
The second question: Did Obama do as badly as reported? Also no.
Critics have said that he looked tired, uninterested, distracted. Perhaps, but he does have a day job. In any case, a great deal of what I saw could just as easily be described as deliberative and decorous, that is, presidential.
His supporters wish that Obama had been more assertive, even confrontational. Particularly, why didn't he mention Romney's infamous "47-Percent" remark? But why would Obama, a tactical and strategic thinker, invite Romney to counter with Obama's own ill-advised "cling-to-their-guns-and-religion" gaffe of a few years ago? This was a case of rhetorical Mutually Assured Destruction.
Democrats may have wished that Obama had challenged Romney more emphatically on his many dubious, unsupported assertions. The debate may have been a lost opportunity. But whether Obama was cowed or calm, distracted or deliberative, defensive or dignified is a highly subjective issue.
Was the debate a game-changer? Let's hope not, no matter which candidate eventually wins the election. Debates in the television age are highly questionable ways of determining who will make the best president.
Sure, they're exciting, like a car race -- a disaster can occur at any moment -- but the best hope for our republic is that substance wins in the end.
(John Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.)