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Friday, October 19, 2012

The Year the Debates Mattered

Peggy Noonan
Will Obama's crass presidential style become the rule or prove an exception?

The presidential debates this year have been more consequential than such debates have ever been.

They've been historic, shifting the mood and trajectory of the race. They've been revealing of the personalities and approaches of the candidates. And they've produced a new way in which winners and losers are judged. It's a two-part wave now, the debate and the postdebate, and you have to win both.

In a way this has always been true. That's why there are spin rooms. But this year it's all more so—more organic, more spontaneous and powerful. And everyone knows what spin is. They're looking for a truth room. Through a million websites and tweets they're trying, in some rough, imperfect way, to build one.

Mitt Romney won the first debate clearly and decisively, we know that. But even more he won the days and weeks after the debate, when public opinion congeals in certain directions. It was in the postdebate that people, very much including Democrats, let out for the first time their dismay at Barack Obama and their dislike of the personality he presented.

The vice presidential debate seemed more or less a draw, with Joe Biden maybe having an edge. But it was in the postdebate, in the days afterward, that Mr. Biden seemed to slip, because the national conversation didn't move off his antics—the chuckles, the grimaces, the theatrical strangeness of it all. A draw, or a victory, began to seem like a loss.

Mr. Obama won the second debate Tuesday night with a vigorous, pointed performance. He showed up, fought, landed some blows. It was close and he was joyless, a bit of a toothache, but he emerged in marginally better shape than he entered. But he doesn't seem to be winning the postdebate. No one is talking about his excellence or his stunningly good performance—no one is talking about that. Instead the national conversation has been about the terrorist attacks in Benghazi. Did the president tell the truth at the time? Was he telling it now? Did Mr. Romney fail to unmask his dishonesty? People are asking what is the truth of the economy, as opposed to the factoids deployed. Have drilling permits on federal lands been cut or not? These issues are not good for the president, and they'll be the subject of discussion up until the next debate.

In the postdebate, the president's win is starting to look like a draw.

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