We've finally returned from Bizarro World. The first presidential debate flipped everything we knew on its head: Obama looked ineffectual and weak, like a Democrat from 2004 or 1988. Romney appeared to first-time viewers to be a moderate who was chipper, friendly, and in control. (After a little bit of research, anyone could discover that just about everything Romney said was a lie, but nobody ever accused the American voting public of doing too much research.) President Obama gave a listless, off-key performance that sent Democrats tailspinning into a spiral of depression and self-loathing. The vice presidential debate, which featured Joe Biden man-handling the alleged brains of the Republican Party in a jovial fashion, wasn't enough to turn Democrats' spirits around. Everyone was in a funk, convinced that voters were in the thrall of a new, more competent Mitt Romney and a weak-willed President Obama who was helpless to call Romney out on his litany of lies.
All that ended tonight. This debate's winners and losers are just as clear as the last debate's winners and losers, but the results have flipped. President Obama was relaxed, sharp, just aggressive enough, and confident. Mitt Romney was petty, awkward, robotic, and condescending. Romney tried to railroad Candy Crowley the same way he cowed Jim Lehrer during the first debate, but he failed every time, and every time he tried to get his way, he looked a little bit more ineffectual. Twice, Romney came directly to President Obama while stammering questions—once about oil drilling permits, once about pensions—and both times, he seemed to be a third grade bully attacking a high school senior: Small, angry, mindless, weak.
Tonight was the return of the Mitt Romney that we've seen since the very beginning of his presidential campaign. When he has months to prepare, as he did for the first presidential debate, Romney can momentarily tuck this awkward, stammering, stiff cardboard cutout of a man away for ninety minutes or so. But when he only has two weeks to prepare, he simply can't get it done. Worse, Romney can't remember what he's supposed to be anymore. What we saw tonight was a Mitt Romney who was backfiring and shape-shifting between all the different Mitt Romneys we've seen during his long and ignominious public career. He appeared to take two very different stances on immigration simultaneously. On the liberal side, he reversed his stance on making contraception available to women. On the conservative side, he tried to blame gun violence on single mothers.
President Obama, on the other hand, was having an amazing night. He allowed himself to become angry—presidentially angry, not sputtering faux-teabagger angry, as Romney did—when he was accused of playing politics with dead American ambassadors. Twice, he talked about being there when the coffins came home. He demanded that Romney finish his attack, even when Romney appeared to get cold feet about it ("Proceed, governor," Obama said, and it was then when I think every viewer understood that these two men hate each other on a fundamental level). He attacked Romney for trying to drag America down to Romney's level, and he berated the Republican with all the disdain you'd expect a Commander-in-Chief to muster when he's truly disgusted.
Romney didn't win a single question tonight. He came closest on a question that basically allowed him to modify his stump speech into something resembling an angry tirade, but even then he ran out of gas before he reached the conclusion of his statement. All the way through, he was feckless, slimy, and ultimately meek. He lurked in the background of many of the shots as President Obama spoke, pink-faced and grimacing, choking the neck of his microphone as he scrambled around in the depths of his brain, trying to figure out what he should say next. That expression on his face was the look of a man who knew he was failing. He brought all of his best ideas to Hofstra University, and President Obama left every single one of those ideas broken on the debate hall floor, looking chintzy and cheap in the floodlights.