For many of us, Wednesday night was the beginning of the presidential election. For the first time Mitt Romney emerged as a legitimate contender, successfully challenging Obama’s policies, leadership, and dictating rather than reacting to the President’s political chicanery. In a stunning reversal of the last several weeks, Romney finally exuded confidence and commanded the stage while President Obama dithered, unable to muster much energy. But while the first presidential debate has shifted momentum in Romney’s direction it was not a game changer.
Romney scored some good hits but did not land any killer blows. The debate was mired in policy, largely focusing on the economy and jobs, which played to Governor Romney’s strengths. Romney’s superior understanding of these issues seared Obama. However, outside of some clever wordplay like “trickle down government,” Romney did not capture the hearts and minds of Americans. His appeals were more cerebral than emotional.
In my view, defeating an incumbent president—the toughest challenge in politics—means accomplishing three things. First, a successful presidential contender must demonstrate the mental wherewithal to be president, the capacity to pilot the world’s largest economy and lead the most powerful nation. Second, a presidential contender must persuade Americans that their country is heading in the wrong direction, and requires a new one. Third, and most importantly, to become president means convincing the American people that you offer a better alternative.
Last night, Mitt Romney emphatically accomplished the first task. He conveyed a firm grasp of the problems confronting Americans, particularly on three key issues: job creation, government efficiency, and taxes. Governor Romney’s knowledge was deeper than the President’s, and he overwhelmed Obama with specific counter examples and policy recommendations. But Romney fell short of characterizing Obama’s presidency as a total disaster, and he failed to present a viable, concrete alternative.
The Obama campaign has already reloaded. The President attacked the GOP nominee for “dishonesty.” Their strategy is clear: spin the results and go back on the offensive. Mitt Romney should not play into their hands. He must keep on message and stay on the offensive. Neither candidate plays defense well, but Romney possesses the ability to attack without overreaching. That is how the Romney campaign should run their candidate all the way to November.
Media pundits and political junkies are often guilty of overstating the importance of political trends. Before last night Romney was largely written off because of his imprudent gaffes and lackluster campaign. His debate performance has silenced critics because Romney showed he has the mettle to compete with the President. But to win the election and become the next President, Mitt Romney must sustain this momentum by completely discrediting Obama’s feckless administration and presenting a simple, tangible way forward.
Cameron Macgregor is a USNA graduate and former naval officer. He is currently a graduate student at George Mason University.