The liberal reaction after the first debate was swift and fierce. President Barack Obama performed poorly, to put it mildly, and he got no quarter or benefit of the doubt from his supporters. But this reaction (though overwrought in some quarters) forced Obama to deal with the setback:
After the debate, Mr. Obama called Mr. Axelrod on his way back to the hotel room. He had read the early reviews on his iPad.Compare that to Mitt Romney's performance in the second debate. While not as obviously bad as Obama's first performance, it was still terrible. The snap polls—despite being weighed heavily Republican (they watched the debates in greater numbers)—found that Romney had gotten trounced.
“I guess the consensus is that we didn’t have a very good night,” Mr. Obama told Mr. Axelrod.
“That is the consensus,” Mr. Axelrod said [...]
After watching a videotape of his debate performance, Mr. Obama began calling panicked donors and supporters to reassure them he would do better. “This is on me,” the president said, again and again.
Mr. Obama, who had dismissed warnings about being caught off guard in the debate, told his advisers that he would now accept and deploy the prewritten attack lines that he had sniffed at earlier. “If I give up a couple of points of likability and come across as snarky, so be it,” Mr. Obama told his staff.
But unlike Democrats who refused to crawl into a hole and deny reality, Republicans did just that. They claimed Romney had done well, beaten Obama, done what "he had to do," and generally announced mission accomplished. They blamed Candy Crowley for challenging Romney on his Benghazi lie, then claimed it wasn't a lie despite the clear video evidence to the contrary. Denying that reality was a huge mistake, as the third debate proved.
Already, the vice-presidential and 2nd presidential debates had turned around the polling trendlines:
Instead, we saw Romney do his best imitation of Obama's first-debate performance. He was tentative, hesitant, played it safe, looked bored, tired, aloof, agreed a whole hell of a lot with Obama, and let Obama interrupt him and dictate the terms and pace of the debate.
He was playing it safe, deploying a prevent defense, and it was backfiring on him the same way it backfired on Obama when he attempted it the first time around. At the time, I remember thinking, "Why would you do that if you're not ahead?" Well, now we know that they did think they were ahead. But worst of all, he had made no adjustments based on his second-debate failures. He had bought the right-wing spin that he had done just fine, and didn't make the necessary corrections to account for a different debate partner.
What had worked against a listless Obama wasn't working against a lively one, and rather than pretend he had done well the second time out, he would've been better served with a healthy (if painful) dose of reality.