So how are you enjoying Debate Season, people?
As compared to the prior Convention Season. Or that little patch in between that has now become known as Reducing Expectations Season. And before that, of course, there was Primary Season, and, before that, the French and Indian War.
On Wednesday night, as the debate era opened, Mitt Romney definitely seemed more energetic — was there ever before a presidential candidate who could sound that enthusiastic while vowing to defund Big Bird?
But Romney had that funny look on his face whenever President Barack Obama was talking. Somewhere between a person who is trying to overlook an unpleasant smell and a guy who is trying to restrain himself from pointing out that his car is much nicer than your car.
Obama seemed tired or bored, and he fell way behind in the much-anticipated battle of the zingers. The president thinks these debates are ridiculous, and he may well be right. But, truly, it would have been a better idea to keep the thought to himself.
On the other hand, he was the only one who wants Donald Trump to pay more taxes.
If you watched the whole thing, you now know that the president has taken to calling his health care reform law “Obamacare,” which is really a tad strange.
Also that Mitt Romney will not admit that any of his proposals could involve unpleasant details. Taxes will go down, but not revenues. The health care reform plan will go away, except for all the popular parts, which will magically remain intact.
“At some point, I think the American people have to ask themselves: Is the reason that Governor Romney is keeping all these plans-to-replace secret because they're too good? Is it because that somehow middle-class families are going to benefit too much from them?” Obama retorted. But this was about an hour into the debate.
Romney, on the other hand, was a veritable zinger arsenal from the get-go. (“Mr. President, you're entitled, as the president, to your own airplane and to your own house, but not to your own facts.”)
And what are we to make of all this? There wasn't any car crash, but we have been trained to regard every twitch, tic and failure to look engaged as a matter of possibly cosmic consequence. The next leader of the most powerful nation on earth needs to be the person with the best comebacks, but the fewest strange facial expressions.
It's a little like one of those fairy tales where the citizens of the kingdom pick their next king on the basis of a race to find the feather of the golden swan.
Do debates really matter? The experts say that, barring total disaster, the answer is actually no.
The committed are already committed. (In some cases, really, really committed. Witness the large proportion of Ohio Republicans who told a pollster that they thought Mitt Romney was the person most responsible for killing Osama bin Laden.)
It's all about the voters with failure to commit. CNN managed to corral some of them to register their responses to the debate's every jab and parry. I kept peeping at the lines recording their emotions, and I swear there were long stretches where the Undecideds nodded off.
Still, you don't want to mess these things up. No candidate wants to repeat the saga of Rick Lazio, who ran against Hillary Clinton for the U.S. Senate in New York in 2000. During a critical debate, Lazio tried to be clever by walking over and asking Clinton to sign a campaign fundraising pledge. It made him look less like a senator than a stalker, and now, a dozen years later, Hillary Clinton is known as one of the most beloved figures on the planet, while Lazio is known as the guy who once violated Hillary Clinton's space.
All I know is that you deserve a hand, interested citizen. You really have been through a lot. You were there for the Rick Perry meltdown and the Mitch Daniels blip, and the period when we had to get up to speed on Newt Gingrich's marital history. And now we've still got two more presidential debates plus one vice presidential debate. Then we will be moving into the final two weeks, sometimes known as the Actually Having an Election period.
Did you read John Noble Wilford's article in The Times about the discovery of the remains of a dinosaur the size of a house cat? A paleontologist told Wilford that it might have looked like a “nimble two-legged porcupine.” I am telling you this because the race for the Republican nomination first began at about the time these creatures became extinct. Michele Bachmann shot the last one when it hopped across her front yard.
Collins is a columnist for the New York Times.