During the Cold War there was a theory called “convergence,” according to which the welfare and warfare economies of capitalist America and communist Russia would draw ever closer from opposite directions. Something like that is happening in politics. One of the striking things about last night’s debate was the vigor with which each candidate contorted himself to look like someone from the other party. Well, “vigor” doesn’t really fit Obama’s performance in any sense, but it was interesting that he name-dropped both Reagan and Eisenhower, as if he sees those presidents (in a very abstract way) as his role models. That’s perhaps not so surprising considering the lack of postwar Democratic presidents to which any incumbent would want to liken himself: LBJ? Carter? A Clinton-Obama comparison would strike the wrong note for other reasons.
Romney, meanwhile, minimized the policy differences between himself and Obama: he won’t cut taxes on the rich; he says, “you can’t have a free market without regulation”; and he insists that his repeal-and-replace alternative to Obamacare won’t keep Americans with pre-existing conditions from getting health insurance. Romney’s pitch to Ohio was more coal, part of a broader pitch for “energy independence” (an idea that doesn’t hold up any better than “green energy”), while Obama channeled Pat Buchanan in the first half hour by calling for “economic patriotism” and damning tax breaks for sending jobs abroad.
I read reactions on Twitter before I saw the debate itself. And I noticed a disconnect: while Romney certainly gained much more from the debate than Obama did, the Twitter chatter led me to think Obama must have really imploded. But he didn’t, he was just boring. Romney did himself a world of good in the first half hour by stressing jobs and the middle class, and his greater vim and assertiveness — as well as his facility with numbers and policy — won the fight over the media’s perceptions by a knockout. Obama displayed the same laid-back attitude and lack of urgency that characterized his convention speech, a baffling approach for an endangered incumbent. He kept his eyes on Ohio, though, underscoring the auto bailout toward the end of his remarks. It’s clear he’s decided against a national strategy: for him its all about the Buckeye State. Romney, who until now had focused nigh exclusively on appealing to Republicans, has suddenly switched tracks, and the results speak for themselves.
But did the debate change the fundamentals of the race? Probably not: it’s shaved Obama’s margin, but Romney has a lot of ground to make up. If every debate plays out like this one, it’ll be a different story, but the most interesting question to arise from yesterday’s match-up, to my mind, is which Romney would take office were he actually to win. Because based on what was said on the stage last night, even a Republican win in November could be an Obama second term.