woody_zimmerman_118_2007It would be remarkable if any voters remain who have not made up their minds about the presidential candidates in the wake of the three debates – not to mention the burlesque-event that featured Vice-president Biden and Congressman Ryan. Only the first of the debates was truly informative, as it utterly smashed the artificial caricature of Mitt Romney that the Obama campaign had constructed.

In just a few minutes Mr. Romney undid millions of dollars in ads run for and by the Obama campaign over the past year. He did it by being the normal, decent, witty, extremely intelligent man he really is. Millions of people saw and heard that guy, unfiltered, for the first time, and many decided that he was a plausible president. The Democrats’ game of “hide the candidate” was over. New Jersey Governor Christie had predicted that the debate would turn the campaign upside down, and he was right.

The Obama campaign’s strategy for the first debate seemed to call for Mr. Obama to look “presidential” and let Mr. Romney talk – perhaps in the hope that he would trip over his own shoelaces and destroy himself. To this observer it looked like Mr. Obama and his brain trust had bought their own caricature of Mr. Romney – i.e., that he was a heartless corporate raider, one-dimensional, a religious nut, dull as dishwater, and nowhere near Mr. Obama’s intellectual equal. He would look like an idiot on the same stage with the formidable persona of the president.

Unfortunately (for them), Mr. Romney met none of their expectations. Instead, he was forceful, balanced, intelligent, at ease with himself and the debate-environment, occasionally humorous, and entirely engaging at the podium. Even media acolytes solidly in Mr. Obama’s corner must have come away with a clear impression that Mr. Romney could quite plausibly be president. So did millions of Americans watching the televised debate. The event was a PR-catastrophe for Mr. Obama.

The subsequent debates between Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama have been interesting mostly to the media-segment that is partial to the president. From their standpoint, the purpose of debates 2 and 3 was twofold: (1) to draw Mr. Romney out on domestic and foreign matters in the hope that he might make a slip, or commit a gaffe, or reveal a program detail that would damage his electoral prospects; and (2) to help Mr. Obama regain his stature after his crash in the first debate. His expected success in debates 2 and 3 – which media would work mightily to produce – would lay the groundwork for their narrative, “The Kid is comin’ back.” A derivative purpose was to block Mr. Romney’s attempts to show voters how his program would help change their personal fortunes and right the country’s financial ship.

In debates 2 and 3, Mr. Obama used interruption and argument to stifle Mr. Romney’s presentations and make voters doubt the challenger’s financial data and plans. More than once I heard him say, “None of what you’ve said is true, Governor…” Vice president Biden used this same tactic in his debate with Paul Ryan – repeatedly interrupting his statements, laughing aloud, grinning, mugging for the camera, and arguing endlessly with his data and policy explanations – thereby preventing Mr. Ryan from making the lucid statements about Mr. Romney’s intended policies that he might have made and that voters deserved to hear.

All in all, I believe that the Obama campaign regarded the debates as an “obstacle” to get past, in their certain march to re-election. I am not the first to observe that Mr. Obama acts like he’s running as a “challenger,” not as a sitting president who has held the office for four years. “Someone” has been president during that time – did George Bush sneak back in? – but Mr. Obama wants us to look to the “future” instead of examining his first term. He rarely mentions Obamacare, his signature program, although he does endlessly beat his chest for killing Osama bin Laden.

As to Mr. Obama’s second-term plans, all we really know is that he implies he can balance the federal budget by raising taxes on “the rich,” whom he defines as anyone making over $200,000 a year. Economists point out that this would produce only about $50 billion a year in new revenue, which is far less than the $1.1 trillion deficit that federal expenditures are now running. (I was going to mention the “federal budget,” but the Democrat-controlled senate has refused to pass a budget for the past three years.) Economists also argue that higher taxes on this income group will almost certainly degrade the creation of new business and new jobs, since two-thirds of new jobs are created by small businesses, and the incomes of many such businesses run through the personal finances of their owners.

Mr. Obama, however, is deaf to all arguments along these lines. Indeed, he appears content to use his tax proposals as a diversion for the media to run after, so they won’t examine his fiscal stewardship too closely. If this were a basketball game, we would say he was using Dean Smith’s slowdown tactics to run out the clock. The last thing he wants is a serious discussion of Mr. Romney’s tax plans.

The Obama camp has made a maximum attempt to convince voters that Mr. Romney will raise the taxes of middle-class workers in order to pay for a massive tax-cut for the (hated) “rich.” When Mr. Romney clearly debunked this mischaracterization of his tax plans in the first debate, Mr. Obama and his minions angrily denounced Mr. Romney as a “liar” because he refused to conform to the spurious story they had constructed. They, not he, were the liars, but this time Mr. Romney got the chance to correct the record in front of 65 million Americans. The Obama camp considered this an “outrage.”

So now we have had the debates, and they have done whatever they have done with respect to voters’ attitudes toward the candidates. As I write this, two weeks remain until Election Day. The real question is: which way will voters take the country? Some recast this as a question of whether the Takers now outnumber the Producers. Or is it the other way round?

We won’t know the answer to these questions until the votes are cast, but we do know the financial shape the country is in. Food-stamp recipients are at an all-time high; one in six Americans are officially in “poverty;” and 23 million people who want to work are either jobless or in part-time jobs that furnish a fraction of the income they need and want. The government has contrived to engineer numerical measures of joblessness in ways that make it appear that things are getting better, but people in the throes of the hardest Hard Times since the Great Depression know things are not really improving. I have never known so many people personally who are out of work. For them, these are truly desperate times.

It appears that the Obama administration has tried to put as many people as possible on the government dole – perhaps with the intention of expanding his “base.” Maybe this strategy will work, but I doubt it. I believe that most people want to work, live productive lives, earn a decent living, and support their families. They accept government help because they need it, but they don’t see being on the dole as a long-term way of life. I don’t believe these people are a natural constituency for Mr. Obama and Democrats, but we’ll soon learn if I’m correct.

In the long stretch of our history, America became great because it was heavily populated with people of strength, ambition and resourcefulness. People worked hard because they knew it was the way to get ahead. Our system let them keep most of what they earned, and all of society benefitted from their labors.

A different system will produce different results. We’re going to find out if Americans have the wisdom to draw back from a serious attempt to change what has made us successful. Pray that they will. If we take four more years of Mr. Obama, it will be the Devil’s own job to get back to the real America.

As any Sunday School child will tell you, tempting the Devil is not a good idea.