There's an old joke in football that goes "We won the game 1-1". It isn't necessarily as illogical as it sounds, if the game takes place in a tournament in which one side needs a win to qualify and the other needs only a draw. A presidential debate between an incumbent who is leading in the polls and his challenger is one such contest.
Last night's debate was calm, measured, and detailed. There were no explosive moments of confrontation or whizzing zingers - in fact it is hard to identify any "moments" at all. There were substantial discussions of deficit reduction, tax and spending, Medicaid, bank regulation, and healthcare. There were no partisan attacks - the words "Democrat" or "Republican" were barely mentioned for most of the debate. The emotional thermostat was set to Cool throughout. Neither candidate offered us any amusing physical or verbal tics to snigger at.
It was, frankly, pretty dull. I should think many Americans fell asleep in front of the TV. Which is just what Obama wanted.
At this stage, Obama just needs to run down the clock. The race is pretty much where he wants it. He doesn't need to take any risks, and last night, he didn't. There no rousing calls to fairness of the kind he's been making on the stump. He didn't draw bold contrasts between himself and his opponent. He never mentioned "47%". He just focused on sounding reasonable.
Last night was Romney's big chance, and probably his last chance, to change the fundamental dynamic of this race. To borrow a phrase, he had to be the change he seeks. But he was too cautious.
He gave a very decent account of himself: he appeared poised, at ease and in command of his material, and defended his policies from Obama's attacks with energy and conviction.
But he didn't take any risks. His 'zingers' ("You're not entitled to your own facts") were half-heartedly delivered. He didn't try and knock Obama off his easy stride by making surprising attacks, or capture the audience's attention by showing a new side of himself.
This calm and sober approach worked well for Romney during the primaries, because his opponents were for the most part a bunch of loonies and incompetents. All Romney had to do was be the grown-up in the room.
Last night, debating another grown-up, he needed to be more daring. Instead, he gave a highly competent performance, and he lost.
PS I wrote this before looking at any of the reactions on the blogs or Twitter. And this is an interesting example of what I was talking about the other day, because it turns out my take represents a minority review among the pundits. The consensus is that Romney won decisively - and that Obama was way too defensive and low energy. Hmm, interesting. But I'll leave this post here before I start changing my mind.
(Full debate here.)