Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

It wasn't just Romney who won

By David Rothkopf, Special to CNN
October 4, 2012 -- Updated 1800 GMT (0200 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Rothkopf: Obama blew it at debate, but it's a useful wake-up call for him to get in game
  • He says other winners include media, which now has a story, and Romney's prep team
  • Big winner, he says, is the electorate, which got to see the candidates on their feet
  • Rothkopf: It's one event and still four weeks for candidates to make case; a lot can happen

Editor's note: David Rothkopf is CEO and editor-at-large of the FP Group, publishers of Foreign Policy Magazine, and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

(CNN) -- To say Barack Obama stunk it up on stage at the University of Denver in the first presidential debate would not be an overstatement. He was as limp as day-old ramen. But to focus on Obama's muted, spluttering performance or to characterize the debate as a high point for Mitt Romney that was as vital for his languishing campaign as it was overdue would be to miss the other important stories of winners and losers from Wednesday's 90 minute face-off.

One clear loser, for example, was Obama's campaign team. They have chosen a defensive campaign course for the past couple of months based on their assumption that they had the election in the bag. They had replaced Bill Clinton's "it's the economy, stupid" with Hippocrates' "first, do no harm" as their campaign motto.

David Rothkopf
David Rothkopf

They had prohibited senior officials from within the administration to go on national television without White House approval because they felt that the benefits normally associated with multiple high-level messengers supporting a president's campaign were outweighed by the risks that somebody might offer up a gaffe. Leave those to Romney, they thought. He will beat himself.

Until 9 p.m. ET on Wednesday, that approach seemed to be working. But within minutes of the beginning of the debate, it was clear that the president was facing an energized, well-prepared challenger -- one who had been surrounded by people willing to criticize him and offer suggestions for how to do better. Meanwhile, the country's chief executive found him suffering from one of the risks of incumbency: the side effects of living in a bubble of sycophants in the White House.

Watch the replay of the debate
Did you miss the first presidential debate? You can watch the full event online on CNN.com.

It is a not very well-kept secret in Washington that the president is a supremely self-confident man surrounded by a handful of equally self-satisfied handlers. Inside that bubble, the atmosphere is equal parts rarified air and arrogance. As a consequence, the president did not prepare as well as he should have for the debate, and no one dared to push him harder.

Opinion roundup: Romney shakes up the race

After Wednesday's drubbing, however, the president -- who is also an earnest, exceptionally intelligent and hard-working man -- will not make the same mistake twice. Consequently, we have two other winners to cite.

CNN Focus Group: Best moments
President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney finish their debate in Denver on Wednesday, October 3. View behind-the-scene photos of debate preparations. President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney finish their debate in Denver on Wednesday, October 3. View behind-the-scene photos of debate preparations.
The first presidential debate
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Photos: The first presidential debate Photos: The first presidential debate
Obama: President needs a specific plan
Romney: Banks reluctant to give loans
CNN Focus Group: Worst moments

One is the president himself. He got a wake-up call at the best possible time -- while he had a good lead and early enough that he can use future debates to reassert his leadership and his reputation for being a great communicator.

A more important winner, however, is the typical voter. Not only did they finally get relief from the incessant geyser of shallow, mean-spirited campaign propaganda from their televisions, but they got a chance to see the candidates for more than a few soundbites in a message that they approved.

Once again, despite the prevarications and the semi-truths, the zingers and the stumbles, listening to two intelligent, committed candidates for 90 minutes offered more illumination than the preceding two years of this campaign added up. But better, because the challenger did so well, they are likely to see both candidates upping their game in the coming weeks. They are likely to tune in to the next debates. They are likely to have a clearer view of the momentous choice they are being asked to make.

This elevation of the next phase of the campaign -- and Romney's credibility -- is also a big win for the media. It's no longer the runaway race it looked like before Wednesday night. It's a story again. Were they wrong about Romney? If it sells newspapers and draws eyeballs, they hope so. Being wrong is nowhere near as bad as being ignored.

(I say this having a little skin in the game. I wrote a column Monday for Foreign Policy saying the race was over. I still think Obama will win; the gender gap is too big -- even though Obama failed to make more of the woeful GOP record on women's issues during last night's domestic policy debate. And significant gaps have emerged in key swing states. But I'll admit it, I'm nervous about my prediction. Two more performances like last night, and Obama could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.)

Romney's team and his debate prep opponent Rob Portman are also winners. As skillful and confident as Romney was, his strength was that he was very, very well-prepped. He had studied hard, seemed to have facts or reasonable facsimiles of them at his fingertips and fluidly moved from key point to key point.

Also, thanks to this performance, the GOP money machine and party establishment are going to lean into a little thing you might call "the audacity of hope." Had Romney faltered, they might have ditched him and refocused on congressional races. Now, the big bucks will continue to flow.

Opinion: Romney wasn't stellar, but Obama fell short

Almost certainly, Michelle Obama was also a loser. Her 20th anniversary celebration after the debate couldn't have been too much fun. Similarly, the people who had been hoping to meet with the president and vice president before their next debates and whose appointments will be canceled to make time for more debate prep are could consider themselves victims of Mitt's big night.

Jim Lehrer can't be too happy with the prevailing view that as a moderator, he ended up as road kill. And it was win-lose for the Twitterverse. The event was the most tweeted political event in the (short) history of Twitter. And it also brought out the very worst in the snark-saturated medium.

But in the end, for all the winners and losers who are celebrating or sobbing in the wake of Wednesday's exchanges, it is important to remember that this was just one debate and that over the next four weeks, there will be three more, plus hundreds of campaign appearances, gaffes and unexpected developments at home and overseas that will likely overshadow this one set piece.

In other words, it is tempting but dangerous to read too much into this debate -- but fair and, yes, exciting to note this was just the sort of twist this tedious, small-ball campaign needed.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Rothkopf

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT