One of the main drawbacks to televised political theatrics is that we tend to evaluate the events in an unconstructive way. We see players on a stage, after extensive rehearsals, playing to a packed house, and we judge them as if they are actors -- who seemed "crisp" and looked "confident."
In other words, we invariably value political theater on its theatrical qualities, watching to see who knew their lines and delivered them more effectively.
By this measure, when it comes to determining who "won" last night's debate in Denver, I'd argue the conventional wisdom is right: it wasn't close. Based on style and performance, Mitt Romney did all of the things a "winning" debater is supposed to do.
Did he know his lines? Obviously, yes. Did he deliver them well? Flawlessly. I argued last week that Romney's "strength as a debater is wildly underappreciated" and "if Democrats expect Romney to falter in the debates, they're making a big mistake." Last night illustrated what I was talking about.
President Obama, meanwhile, was listless and timid. He stumbled on his words. At times he seemed distracted and unfocused. There were key opportunities for the president to go on the offensive, but for whatever reason, he chose not to engage. For pundits checking boxes -- who gave the appearance of being "in control"? -- Romney excelled.
But all of this overlooks an element I like to think is sometimes important: substance. The men on the stage last night aren't actors; they're candidates for the nation's highest office. Delivering lines well is a nice quality, but as the dust settles, it's worth pausing to reflect on whether those lines were true and reflect reality in any meaningful way.
Indeed, it seems to me Romney thrived in large part because he abandoned the pretense of honesty. And as it turns out, winning a debate is surprisingly easy when a candidate decides he can say anything and expect to get away with it.
Romney told viewers his proposed $5 trillion tax cut isn't really his proposed $5 trillion tax cut. He suggested he could eliminate a $1 trillion deficit by going after Big Bird. He said his non-existent health care plan protects those with pre-existing conditions when in reality the exact opposite is true. He cited trumped up "studies" from far-right ideologues as if they're legitimate, assuming the public won't know the difference. He said a deficit that's shrunk has actually "doubled."
And when Romney wasn't repeating falsehoods, he was furiously shaking an Etch A Sketch, rolling out yet another version of himself.
This new model -- version 8.0? 9.0? -- likes regulations of the financial industry, wants to work with Democrats, thinks his Massachusetts health care law was a great idea, and has no use for the goals of his running mate's budget plan that Romney enthusiastically endorsed. Does this in any way reflect the candidate who's been running for president the last year and a half? No, but the Republican assumes most voters won't realize and most news organizations covering the campaign won't tell them.
He might very well be right.
But as Romney and his supporters take a victory lap this morning, it's fair to note their success was a triumph for style over substance.