Can an Imaginary Man Debate?
Put yourself at one of the initial meetings between Mitt Romney and his advisers prior to preparing for the debates. At some point during the discussion, a member of his staff may have said, "How do you debate a fairytale, a myth, a fiction, a make-believe person created by the media...and Obama himself?"
Another member may have raised a similar concern with the query, "Even if we win, how do we deal with a media that will trumpet Obama as the true victor? Because they not only created the fantasy; they have diligently protected it for almost four years."
Their conclusion may well have been: "We must overwhelmingly defeat Obama to succeed and to blunt the predictable post-debate media narrative...so let's focus on that as our goal."
A realistic appraisal of Obama and his track record would have included personal traits: his penchant for windy, empty rhetoric; his ridiculous straw-man arguments; his dislike of being contradicted; his thin skin; his arrogant conviction that he could better anyone; his belief that charm could be called upon in a pinch, and that as a last resort the media could be relied upon to fulfill its function...telling Americans what they should believe -- i.e., in everything Obama. These characteristics and others would provide opportunities but couldn't be counted on to help Romney achieve a knockout.
Thus, Romney did what most successful people and leaders do...he prepared. Based on previous debate successes, he developed, tested, and practiced an overarching debate strategy that would clearly transmit his message to the voter. He anticipated Obama's strategy and tactics and became conversant with the facts necessary to deflect those attacks. He developed and rehearsed an effective factual framework to challenge Obama. He probably refined forceful putdowns/quips for certain situations, and he constantly worked on his overall debating skills. Romney's campaign team, as a priority, would have devised tactics to blunt the MSM's anticipated post-debate assessments and coached his surrogates in their use.
During the run-up to the debate, the media continued to push the construct that a miracle was necessary to slow Obama's momentum and the inevitability of his re-election. Alex Wagner, an MSNBC anchor, stated Romney's challenge as equivalent "... to pull[ing] a sword from the stone à la King Arthur[,]" specifying that "Mitt Romney needs to arrive by spaceship with a cure for cancer and give the greatest debate performance of his life." John King of CNN voiced disagreement with the MSM's main theme that "[o]h, it's over." King said in an interview that "... it's not over, but this first debate now has even more importance to Gov. Romney." King was referring to polls showing deficits in numerous battleground states and the need to change the MSM's national meme. Furthermore, the MSM and Obama's staff decided to inoculate the president against a stumble by reporting that Obama had not had a one-on-one debate in four years, while at the same time failing to mention that Romney had not been mano-a-mano in a decade. Brad Woodhouse, a spokesman for the DNC, predicted that Romney would win because the president wasn't good at "sound bites," had a busy schedule, and was focused on more important things. Romney's team also spent time lowering expectations for their champion. Paul Ryan and Gov. Chris Christie were having none of it, however, and stated definitively that Romney would win and create a new campaign reality.
Romney also received advice and criticism from many Republicans/conservatives suggesting that he had to go on the offensive but to "be respectful," that he needed to speak in the second person, take charge, be aggressive, not be aggressive, show sensitivity, be likeable...ad nauseam. The list of "advisers" included Bill Kristol, Laura Ingraham, Brit Hume, Mike Huckabee, Karl Rove, and more. Romney seemed quite unresponsive to both their criticism and advice, kept his head down, and moved forward with his intensive debate preparation.
On debate night, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama greeted each other courteously. Then Romney proceeded to dismantle the media's imaginary man. Step by step he listed the president's failures and proposed solutions in a straightforward and compelling manner while easily parrying Obama's feeble rejoinders. Gov. Romney's superior performance temporarily put the media in a state of shock. A corrupted media...a media that pretends that Andrea Mitchell, George Stephanopoulos, and Soledad O'Brien are objective journalists and not left-wing operatives...a media that relies on passive mistruths and lies of omission...a media that ignores their constructed man's failures, soft-pedals negatives like Fast & Furious, misreports an ambassador's murder in a terror attack, apologizes for a failed foreign policy, a moribund economy, staggering deficits, devastating unemployment, incomprehensible debt, and Obama's divisiveness, et al. Mitt Romney, through hard work and in-depth practice and preparation, routed their hero and won the debate going away. The fairy-tale man didn't get to the "and they lived happily ever after" part of the story after all.
The Romney campaign and debate prep team certainly did not anticipate the post-debate responses of the Obama team or the legacy media. The Obama spin-room surrogates were absent for approximately ten minutes as they huddled to paste together a storyline to explain Obama's complete collapse. When Obama's surrogates did begin talking about the debate, the message was both disjointed and muted. According to campaign manager Jim Messina, Romney had a good night on "style points," but Obama won because he "talked directly to the American people about plans." David Axelrod, Obama's senior political adviser, claimed, "But when people take a look at the product...it turns out there was nothing there but bad news." Chris Matthews melted down on air in disbelief at the president's performance, Al Gore faulted the altitude, Stephanie Cutter blamed moderator Jim Lehrer, and Bill Maher tweeted that Obama needed a teleprompter. Democrats, liberals, progressives, and supporters of every stripe felt betrayed.
The following day, the salvaging of Barack Obama by the MSM began in earnest. Articles appeared by "journalists" like Eleanor Clift, Amy Sullivan, and Glenn Thrush grudgingly admitting to a Romney victory while asserting that he really didn't win (or win the voters) for a variety of vague reasons. Obama, back on the trail, began mocking Romney with claims that his proposals didn't add up, that he was not specific, that if his programs and solutions were so terrific, why was he keeping them secret? The MSM began publishing wild accusations that Romney had lied without spelling out the details of the "lies." More ridiculous were claims that the president was "off his game" due to the many important issues on his mind, that he hadn't been able to sufficiently prepare because of a crushing schedule, and would redeem himself in the second and third debates. (That "busy schedule" included Las Vegas fundraising as the Middle East burned, partying with Beyoncé and Jay-Z, ignoring Benjamin Netanyahu, and spending his debate preparation time on the golf links.)
The debate was a pivot point in this election. Millions of Americans watched the unmasking of President Obama and his ideology. More importantly, they were exposed to an unfiltered Gov. Mitt Romney. Based on post-debate snap polls, potential voters were persuaded to consider him a legitimate and strong candidate. But most significantly, the tide and momentum have turned...Romney is not just back in this race; he may well be in the lead.