Viewing the Republican presidential debate was two hours of sheer misery, mixed with a foreboding that one of these people could defeat President Barack Obama.

Two hours of grinning, smug Mitt Romney, crowned the winner and front-runner by a media pack that has learned nothing from its misjudgments in 2008. Two hours of Rep. Michele Bachmann, the journalists’ choice as co-winner, well prepped to hide her far-right extremism with a smile. Her performance was enough to con the pundits into elevating this fringe candidate to “star is born” status.

Then there were the other five, tossed unceremoniously—at least for now—on political journalism’s scrap heap. In fact, Romney and Bachmann might end up there, too, if the Texas tea party darling, Gov. Rick Perry, or Sarah Palin enters the race. This crop of candidates promises four or eight years of wrong-headed, right-wing government run on the principles of anti-abortion and extreme Christian fundamentalism.

But as bad as this lineup is, whoever gets the nomination will have the advantage of running against a president crippled by hopeless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and by 9.1 percent unemployment.

All a Republican has to do to win is to appear sane, maybe even reasonable, and to campaign with the deadly message that Romney had in Monday’s debate:

“… We have more chronic long-term [unemployment] than this country has ever seen before. … We’ve got housing prices continuing to decline, and we have foreclosures at record levels. This president has failed. And he’s failed at a time when the American people counted on him to create jobs and get the economy growing.”

These are dangerous words for Obama because there is some truth in them.

Chronic unemployment has become a way of life, threatening to damage families economically and psychologically for generations.

Housing prices are continuing to decline. Homes, once thought to represent economic security, are just the opposite in many places around the country. “Underwater,” once thought of as meaning submerged, now is the well-known description of a house and mortgage worth far less than the purchase price.

Foreclosures have become a big part of American life. They may have slowed during the slight recovery from the recession, but the Obama administration has been unable to stop them in any meaningful way.

And it is true, as Romney said, that the America people counted on Obama to create jobs and get the economy going. He campaigned on a vague promise of hope delivered in an inspiring manner, inspiring enough to convince an electoral majority that he could do it.

In fact, he was elected by the recession. And if the recession continues at the present pace, he could be defeated by it.

That is why Romney’s most telling words were “the president has failed.” This line resonates with unemployed and frightened 2008 Obama voters.

The president is given to moments of admirable gutsiness—Osama bin Laden, the health care law—followed by long periods of aimlessness and silence. There are also pointless meetings behind closed doors on the war, the deficit and the economy.

The plans that have emerged from the meetings on the economy have “mindless bureaucracy” written all over them: A group of the most earnest people, no doubt graduates of elite universities, labor for days working the prerequisite long hours to hammer out a consensus so weak that it is meaningless. The declarations sound as though they were written by assistants who were afraid of getting bawled out for saying something daring or unpopular.

An example was Obama’s radio address last week. He started out with admirable frankness, saying, “I wish I could tell you there was a quick fix to our economic problems. But the truth is, we didn’t get into this mess overnight, and we won’t get out of it overnight. It’s going to take time.”

After hearing him state the problem, a listener wants a solution, Here’s what he said: He has “commitments by the private sector, colleges, and the National Association of Manufacturers that will make it possible for 500,000 community college students to get a manufacturing credential that has the industry’s stamp of approval.”

That makes no sense. The private sector is not hiring, The National Association of Manufacturers, a group long sympathetic to the Republicans, opposes Obama’s major policy initiatives, including health reform. And in regard to the community colleges, their budgets are being slashed around the country, with their students unable to find classes they need to graduate. This Obama plan is locked in unreality, conceived by policy wonks unfamiliar with the real world.

I hate to say it, but Obama seems like one of them too much of the time. That won’t beat a Republican candidate who will be rehearsed and made presentable by the party’s experienced and tricky image-makers.

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