The Audacity of Mendacity

We have four weeks and five days before Election Day, with more and more people casting early votes each day that goes by. There are two more presidential debates, a vice presidential debate still to go. Roughly a gazillion dollars will be spent on late paid media in the battleground states, with Republicans holding a significant but not overwhelming advantage, and another gazillion dollars worth of GOTV activities, with Democrats holding a significant but not overwhelming advantage in that segment of the campaign.

No one will obviously know what if any real impact the first debate has on candidate preferences until the polls start coming out, and while Romney may get a “bump” (largely from Republican voters who were eventually coming around anyway), it could be small enough that all the “game-changing” talk today will seem silly. But without question, Romney got a psychological lift when he most needed it, and for the moment, got conservative critics off his back without taking their suicidal advice to put on a Barry Goldwater mask and unleash the Real Paul Ryan.

Immediate polls aside, the bad news for Romney and the good news for Obama is that the latter’s failure last night to take advantage of the openings the former offered in reframing his record and agenda did not take those openings away. Today’s Team Obama seems to be aggressively playing catch-up (per TPM’s Benjy Sarlin):

Obama senior strategist David Axelrod characterized Romney’s debate strategy as “effective in the short term, vulnerable in the long term.”

“Governor Romney came to give a performance and he gave a good performance and we give him credit for that,” he told reporters in a conference call. “The problem with it was that none of it was rooted in fact.”

He highlighted three areas in particular where the campaign planned to aggressively highlight Romney’s debate claims and press for more specifics: health care for the sick, tax breaks for the rich, and regulations on Wall Street.

The president himself is not-so-subtly suggesting he was thrown off balance by the audacity of Romney’s mendacity:

President Obama told a crowd in Denver on Thursday that he barely recognized the “spirited fellow who claimed to be Mitt Romney” at the debate the night before.

“It could not have been Mitt Romney because the real Mitt Romney has been running around the country for the last year promising $5 trillion in tax cuts that favor the wealthy,” Obama said. “The fellow on stage last night said he didn’t know anything about that.”

He continued with the riff: “The real Mitt Romney said we don’t need any more teachers in our classrooms … but the fellow on stage last night, he loves teachers, can’t get enough of them. The Mitt Romney we all know invested in companies that were called pioneers of outsourcing jobs to other countries, but the guy onstage last night, he said that he does not even know that there are such laws that encourage outsourcing.”

Can the president and his forces (with some possible help from MSM types who are probably embarrassed they didn’t mention Mitt’s factual challenges in awarding him the overwhelming victory last night) bring swing voters up to the level of informed cynicism that just about every regular political observer, D and R, felt while watching Mitt reinvent himself? I don’t see why not, though it would have been vastly more efficient to have done so during a debate being watched by 50 million people.

The more difficult question is how Mitt Romney follows up this reprieve and deals with the inevitable blowback. Sure, he’ll take a victory lap now, and you can expect his people to become an endless fount of upbeat chatter about Momentum and Enthusiasm and all that psych-ops jazz. Perhaps having now laid out his “vision for the country,” he’ll go right back to the old game of calling the election a referendum on the president and refuse to deal with all the questions about his agenda, which were increased, not resolved, by his debate performance. I just don’t know.

As for Republicans, you get the sense today that they are so jubilant because they thought their only problem was a bad candidate, who now seems to have figured out how to be a good candidate. They remain unwilling to accept that their philosophy and their governing agenda are (as Greg Sargent reminds us today) just plain unpopular, and that it takes a candidate as slippery as Mitt Romney to make Republicans look like a safe alternative to the status quo (does anyone really think that Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich would be anywhere close to competitive if either of those gents had been nominated?). At some point, the blatant and continuing contradiction between what Mitt’s been telling “the base” and what he’s telling swing voters now will matter, even if, as seems far more likely today, the representatives of “the base” are willing to go along with the game, believing deeply that it’s voters, not they, who are getting zoomed.

Mitt Romney negotiated a fine highwire act last night, but he’s still up there teetering, with a long way to go to safety. It’s going to be a teeth-grinder

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.