Whether or not you believe in the polls, few would say that challenger Mitt Romney's campaign had been a success up until Wednesday night.
Against a president who has run record deficits, pushed a blatantly unconstitutional health care law, overreached the office of the executive by re-writing Congress' welfare legislation, presided over unprecedented numbers of drone strikes killing civilians on foreign soil, and is currently watching his foreign policy fall apart before his very eyes, you would think the case would nearly make itself.
Yet Romney couldn't seem to drive the point home.
Coming into Wednesday's debate, the Romney campaign tried to downplay the political importance of the first debate. Senior Advisor Beth Myers cautioned viewers about President Obama's "universally acclaimed" public speaking ability, one of the "most talented political communicators in modern history." Polls showed a definitive percentage gap between the challenger and President Obama.
On this night, however, challenger Mitt Romney stood across the stage from the President of the United States - the most powerful single man in the entire Western world. And he didn't give an inch.
The very first thing Romney did was stand up and offer a 5-point plan to recoup the economy and get things going in the right direction. This was indicative of a larger trend: comfortably specific, and speaking in bullet points. His responses were very easily digested and converted into talking points: a must in the limited format of a televised debate.
In addition, Romney was the first one to look directly at his opponent when crafting an answer. The President, at least initially, looked as if he were giving one of his campaign speeches - even the notorious liberal Bill Maher thought that he seemed in need of a telepromter.
But the meat of this debate, the thing that's going to stick in the mind of viewers, are some of the zingers. On that front, at least, Mitt Romney clearly came out the victor. In a debate that might otherwise have been called a tie, Romney threw out some great lines that completely stole the show:
1) "... And what we’re seeing right now is, in my view, a trickle-down government approach which has government thinking it can do a better job than free people pursuing their dreams, and it’s not working.”
"Trickle-down government" is among the best new phrases I've heard in our political lexicon, and I'd be immensely pleased if it stayed around.
Look, when it comes to the economy, liberals are always worried that the Republicans want to put trickle-down economics into effect: a system where the rich stay rich, and we simply hope that the profits of that richness will somehow find its way to the working man.
But as much as that narrative fails, is there any evidence that the government narrative should succeed? Is there evidence that CEOs, with their business panels stocked full of experts, are somehow going to be less efficient at creating wealth than the insulated politicians?
Yet for some reason, folks on the left still feel comfortable putting all the faith they wouldn't give businesses into the unelected bureaucrats of governments agencies.
2) "It's frankly not moral for my generation to keep spending massively more than we take in, knowing burdens will be passed on to the next generation and paying interest and principal all their lives."
This is a key point, and Romney is right to raise it.
Spending in the U.S. government spending is tricky - they have the reputation of the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth, and that buys you a good bit of leverage in economic matters. When we go into severe debt and need to borrow money, we can do that. When we need to print some extra bucks and expand the money supply, we can do that too. Deficit spending has been a forte of the Obama administration, and we should be aware the government can do things financially that no business could ever do.
Yet these policies, while not immediately apparent to us, are extremely harmful. Inflation, caused by excess borrowing and devaluation of the currency through printing of money, IS a tax. A stymied growth brought about by regulations and redistributed wealth IS a tax. All of the financial mess that's associated with 2013's fiscal cliff and the implementation of Obamacare? Chances are, you'll be feeling the effects of that too.
3) "I'm sorry Jim. I'm gonna stop the subsidy to PBS. I'm gonna stop other things. I like PBS. I like Big Bird. I actually like you too."
Alright, there's definitely some humor to this. But there's a serious side, too.
President Obama is very clever about putting together false choice scenarios: cases where he shows you two different paths and says "choose one." For example, we're either in favor of voting in legislation that guarantees equal pay for women, or we're against equal pay entirely. Another: you must be in favor of a government program to provide health insurance to the poor and elderly, or you are just against health care in general and want these people to die.
This is a false dichotomy. It is a false choice. It is a part of the larger progressive narrative: either you want government to do it, or you don't want it done at all.
Romney, despite probably starting a slew of Big Bird memes across the net, is simply making the point that government doesn't need to be the thing we go to in order to change society. Big Bird would have happened without government - human beings could have invented the character out of our own free will and judgment, operating in a free market of individuals.
President Obama and the rest of the progressives are very fond of this tactic: If you don't have a policy, you don't have a solution. Yet men and women figure out solutions to problems every single day, and they do it without the government telling them how they ought to behave or ought to choose.
Silliness aside, Romney affirmed the larger principle of self-government and freedom of association; the ability for human beings to get together and solve problems without government being involved at all.
For full analysis and coverage of the debate, including real-time updates as it went down, see here.