The impact of the debate will be bigger than you think

America got its first, sustained look at the good and competent Mr. Romney. And it really was a first. He wasted his convention but showed up for his debate, and an estimated 58 million people were watching. Many of them were taking his measure for the first time. What did they see? He was confident, gracious, in command of the facts. He looked like a president, acted like one. He was easily the incumbent’s equal and maybe more than that, so he became for the first time a real alternative to the incumbent, a living one, not just a name on a ballot.

He has been painted as Richie Rich, a too-tightly-wound reject from the Republican Animatronic Presidential Candidate Factory. But again, that’s not who he was. He was a normal, smart adult, and he knew things both about America and about public policy. He’s supposed to be extreme, but he was not in the least extreme. He spent his time talking not just to Republicans or conservatives but to the American people, a huge and varied lot. He reminded many of them of something they’d perhaps forgotten along the way: We don’t like the Obama economy! We don’t like ObamaCare! We don’t like not having jobs! Nothing personal, but this didn’t work! …

All the books being written about the 2012 race will tell us the background and circumstances of Mr. Obama’s surprising and deeply unimpressive performance. For now what can be said is this is how journalists described it in real time: passive, listless, effete, detached, flaccid, dull-brained, disengaged, professorial. The last is unjust. Professors are often interesting. When Mr. Romney gave him the sweet-faced “You’re a cute little shrimp” look, and he gave it to him all night, Mr. Obama couldn’t even look at him. When Mr. Obama stared down and nodded at his notes it looked, as someone observed in an email, like his impersonation of a bored wife. Everything he said—everything—was something you’d heard too many times. Mr. Romney gave the president some openings. The president didn’t take them. Why? It crossed my mind he was playing possum. But possums wake up at some point.