And that really points to what must be the deepest reason for the Democrats’ strange response to the debate. The president can’t run on his record, and he isn’t proposing a second term agenda. All he has to run on is the caricature of Mitt Romney that his campaign, his surrogates, and liberal opinion makers in the press have been fashioning for a year. Their goal has been to prevent the election from becoming a referendum on the incumbent, which the Romney campaign had clearly hoped it could be, and to make it not even a choice election but a referendum on the challenger. Obama seemed to have a remarkable degree of success with this approach, but the debate represented Romney’s response: Rather than continue to insist that the election should simply be a referendum on Obama, Romney effectively presented a case for seeing it as a choice between two agendas, and presented his own proposals and vision in his own terms. The Obama campaign had been able to paint Romney in scary colors for months because Romney had declined to describe himself and his agenda much. Now that he’s finally running for president, the Democrats have a problem.

But if that’s their predicament, then surely their panicked response of the last few days is only making things worse. They can’t really expect people to treat them as a trusted source about Romney’s agenda and ignore Romney himself. But if they’ve lost control of the Romney story—even if they merely fight it to a draw—they don’t have much of a case to make for themselves. The public is unhappy with the economy and the direction of the country, and Obama is not proposing to do anything differently if he is given another four years.