Walter Mondale won his first debate against Ronald Reagan in 1980.
John Kerry won his first debate against George W. Bush. Mitt Romney won his first debate against Barack Obama.
When you win, you get lots of congratulations. When you lose, you get lots of advice. President Obama, I am absolutely certain, is getting lots of advice.
The expectations for Romney will be higher in the next debate. Obama will be more passionate, more assertive and more engaged.
So why wasn’t he that way on Wednesday night? Lots of reasons. Hindsight is 20/20.
My guess, watching last night’s debate, is that Obama had taken the Hippocratic oath. He didn’t want to “stoop” to the level of his opponent (challengers always get a bump from being on the same stage as the president), so he just plain avoided any tough criticism (say, of Romney’s support for the Wall Street bailout and not for the auto industry bailout, or of his statement that the 47 percent of the electorate who depend on government entitlements (like seniors and veterans and the disabled) are “victims” who don’t take “responsibility.” But in almost every debate, the more aggressive candidate is seen as the winner if he doesn’t go way over the top. Obama debated like a guy who has a bigger lead than he has.
And there’s more. As a guy who has made some pretty big gaffes, Romney came in with low expectations and beat them. Obama, supposedly the great communicator, came in with high expectations even though his oratorical skills tend to shine in front of huge audiences and not when he’s straight into the camera. Romney has debated dozens of times in the past year. The president hasn’t debated in four years.
So, Romney supporters: Don’t pick out those White House curtains yet. Obama supporters: Don’t give up on your man.
Romney advisers: Tell your friends to tone down the rhetoric. Obama advisers: Don’t be afraid to speak truth to power.
Bottom line: Stay tuned.