153335916

The Pew poll is devastating, just devastating. Before the debate, Obama had a 51 – 43 lead; now, Romney has a 49 – 45 lead. That’s a simply unprecedented reversal for a candidate in October. Before Obama had leads on every policy issue and personal characteristic; now Romney leads in almost all of them. Obama’s performance gave Romney a 12 point swing! I repeat: a 12 point swing.

Romney’s favorables are above Obama’s now. Yes, you read that right. Romney’s favorables are higher than Obama’s right now. That gender gap that was Obama’s firewall? Over in one night:

Currently, women are evenly divided (47% Obama, 47% Romney). Last month, Obama led Romney by 18 points (56% to 38%) among women likely voters.

Seriously: has that kind of swing ever happened this late in a campaign? Has any candidate lost 18 points among women voters in one night ever? And we are told that when Obama left the stage that night, he was feeling good. That’s terrifying. On every single issue, Obama has instantly plummeted into near-oblivion. He still has some personal advantages over Romney – even though they are all much diminished. Obama still has an edge on Medicare, scores much higher on relating to ordinary people, is ahead on foreign policy, and on being moderate, consistent and honest (only 14 percent of swing voters believe Romney is honest). But on the core issues of the economy and the deficit, Romney is now kicking the president’s ass:

By a 37% to 24% margin, more swing voters say Romney would improve the job situation. Swing voters favor Romney on the deficit by a two-to-one (41% vs. 20%) margin…. Romney has gained ground on several of these measures since earlier in the campaign. Most notably, Obama and Romney now run even (44% each) in terms of which candidate is the stronger leader. Obama held a 13-point advantage on this a month ago. And Obama’s 14-point edge as the more honest and truthful candidate has narrowed to just five points. In June, Obama held a 17-point lead as the candidate voters thought was more willing to work with leaders from the other party. Today, the candidates run about even on this (45% say Obama, 42% Romney).

Lies work when they are unrebutted live on stage. And momentum counts at this point in the election.

Now look at Pew’s question as to who would help the middle class the most:

10-8-12-6

Look: I’m trying to rally some morale, but I’ve never seen a candidate this late in the game, so far ahead, just throw in the towel in the way Obama did last week – throw away almost every single advantage he had with voters and manage to enable his opponent to seem as if he cares about the middle class as much as Obama does. How do you erase that imprinted first image from public consciousness: a president incapable of making a single argument or even a halfway decent closing statement? And after Romney’s convincing Etch-A-Sketch, convincing because Obama was incapable of exposing it, Romney is now the centrist candidate, even as he is running to head up the most radical party in the modern era.

How can Obama come back? By ensuring people know that Romney was and is a shameless liar and opportunist? That doesn’t work for a sitting president. He always needed a clear positive proposal – tax reform, a Grand Bargain on S-B lines – as well as a sterling defense of his admirable record. Bill Clinton did the former for him. Everyone imaginable did what they could for him. And his response? Well, let’s look back a bit:

With President Obama holed up in a Nevada resort for debate practice, things can get pretty boring on the White House beat right now. Pretty boring for Obama too, apparently. “Basically they’re keeping me indoors all the time,” Obama told a supporter on the phone during a visit to a Las Vegas area field office. “It’s a drag,” he added. “They’re making me do my homework.”

Too arrogant to take a core campaign responsibility seriously. Too arrogant to give his supporters what they deserve. If he now came out and said he supports Simpson-Bowles in its entirety, it would look desperate, but now that Romney has junked every proposal he ever told his base, and we’re in mid-October, it’s Obama’s only chance on the economy.

Or maybe, just maybe, Obama can regain our trust and confidence somehow in the next debate. Maybe he can begin to give us a positive vision of what he wants to do (amazing that it’s October and some of us are still trying to help him, but he cannot). Maybe if Romney can turn this whole campaign around in 90 minutes, Obama can now do the same. But I doubt it. A sitting president does not recover from being obliterated on substance, style and likability in the first debate and get much of a chance to come back. He has, at a critical moment, deeply depressed his base and his supporters and independents are flocking to Romney in droves.

I’ve never seen a candidate self-destruct for no external reason this late in a campaign before. Gore was better in his first debate – and he threw a solid lead into the trash that night. Even Bush was better in 2004 than Obama last week. Even Reagan’s meandering mess in 1984 was better – and he had approaching Alzheimer’s to blame.

I’m trying to see a silver lining. But when a president self-immolates on live TV, and his opponent shines with lies and smiles, and a record number of people watch, it’s hard to see how a president and his party recover. I’m not giving up. If the lies and propaganda of the last four years work even after Obama had managed to fight back solidly against them to get a clear and solid lead in critical states, then reality-based government is over in this country again. We’re back to Bush-Cheney, but more extreme. We have to find a way to avoid that. Much, much more than Obama’s vanity is at stake.

(Photo: Obama as he imploded, by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images.)