The year the debates mattered

They’ve been historic, shifting the mood and trajectory of the race. They’ve been revealing of the personalities and approaches of the candidates. And they’ve produced a new way in which winners and losers are judged. It’s a two-part wave now, the debate and the postdebate, and you have to win both. …

Mr. Obama won the second debate Tuesday night with a vigorous, pointed performance. He showed up, fought, landed some blows. It was close and he was joyless, a bit of a toothache, but he emerged in marginally better shape than he entered. But he doesn’t seem to be winning the postdebate. No one is talking about his excellence or his stunningly good performance—no one is talking about that. Instead the national conversation has been about the terrorist attacks in Benghazi. Did the president tell the truth at the time? Was he telling it now? Did Mr. Romney fail to unmask his dishonesty? People are asking what is the truth of the economy, as opposed to the factoids deployed. Have drilling permits on federal lands been cut or not? These issues are not good for the president, and they’ll be the subject of discussion up until the next debate. …

What the president said at the debate was nothing he hadn’t said on the trail. His campaign has been personal, accusatory and manipulative. But there in the room on a tiny stage, for a sitting president to come out with that kind of put-down—I couldn’t imagine a JFK doing it, with his cool, or a Jerry Ford with his Midwestern decency, or a Reagan, or the Bushes. …

The president was trying to look strong and commanding, to take control. Did he look strong, or did he look like a hack, like a tough Chicago pol who isn’t quite big enough to be where he is?