Strategically, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama came into the second presidential debate from very different directions. Having won big in the first debate, Romney established himself as a plausible replacement for the incumbent and took the lead in most polls. Obama’s flop failure in the first debate left him damaged as a false messiah and flagging in the polls. Romney had even pulled nearly even with women voters, who traditionally support Democrats and who supported Obama overwhelmingly four years ago. So Romney needed to not fall apart and get out of the debate with at least a draw. Obama needed to score an obvious win.
Both men entered the stage looking relaxed and ready to rumble, smiling at each other and at members of the town-hall-style crowd of what we have been told is made up of undecided voters.
The first question came to Romney from a 20-year-old college student, who asked how he could be assured that after graduation he will be able to get a job and support himself. The job market in the Obama years has been abysmal for recent college grads. Romney led off talking about keeping college affordable, then segued, saying “I want you to be able to get a job!” Half of college grads can’t find jobs, Romney said, and are saddled with too much debt. It will take bringing jobs back and not keeping the middle class “crushed” as Vice President Joe Biden recently said. Romney scored well. Obama answered, “Jeremy, your future is bright” before attacking Romney’s position on the automotive bailout and saying that we need to change the tax code to keep businesses working in the U.S. Obama’s start this time was far better than the first. He still spoke mostly in generalities that have little to do with his actual policies, but he seemed to have organized his thoughts better and backed them up with some details. Romney retorted that the president’s plan hasn’t worked and the real unemployment rate is 10.7%, not the officially reported 7.8%. Romney then scored Obama for saying that Romney wanted to let the auto companies go bankrupt when Obama did in fact let them go bankrupt. Obama replied that what Romney said “just isn’t true.”
From there, Obama went sharply partisan and attacked Romney’s five-point economic plan as a one-point plan: tax breaks for the rich. Obama, judging by the past four years, has a one-point plan too: spend money we don’t have. On the CNN meter, Obama’s loveline went south especially among women. He came off as delivering a bit of trash-talking. I’m not sure most undecided voters are looking for that in a president. The consensus on Twitter formed that this Obama was different from two weeks ago, though not necessarily better.
On energy, Obama promoted more investing in “green” tech (another one failed the day of the debate), while Romney assailed Obama’s anti-coal and anti-oil policies. He brought up the fact that Obama plotted to bankrupt coal companies from the start of his administration.
Candy Crowley, the moderator, then asked her own question: Is the current energy environment the “new normal?” Obama trash-talked again, saying that “Much of what Gov. Romney just said isn’t true” before not detailing any untrue thing said by Romney.
Fireworks at 16 minutes past the hour, Romney was answering a question about energy when Obama interrupted. Romney turned: “You cut oil drilling on federal lands.” Obama: “No I didn’t.” Romney: “By how much did you cut?” Obama would not answer. On the facts, Romney was clearly right. On the style, it’s harder to say. Obama was assertive but is that enough to overcome the high price of gas in most Americans’ minds?
Mark this. At 19 past the hour Obama said that the price of gas was lower four years ago because we were about to go through an economic collapse. He said that Romney might bring prices back down by fostering another collapse. That simply made no sense at all. President Obama does not get supply and demand. It’s that simple. In Mitt Romney we have a capitalist; in Barack Obama we have an ideologue. There is the choice on November 6. I will score the remainder of the debate, but Romney won it with Obama’s ignorant comment on the price of gasoline.
While I was recovering from the president’s asinine remark on gas prices, Romney refuted a Democrat claim, offered via an “undecided voter” in a question, that he will raise taxes on the middle class. No, Romney said, “I won’t raise taxes on the middle class under any circumstances.” Obama repeated the claim. Romney refuted it again, and then explained how taxes impact the economy. Obama likely heard the Charlie Brown adult voice during that portion of the debate. Supply and demand and their impact on the economy elude him.
At 33 past, Crowley asked Romney what he will do if his plan’s numbers don’t add up. Romney riffed on his considerable business experience and saving the Olympics, and laid it next to Obama’s record of spending and debt. “Of course my numbers add up.” Then: “When we’re talking about math that doesn’t add up, how about four trillion dollars in deficits?” It was a massive moment. Obama reacted from the back of the stage as if he had been sucker punched, before he finally stood and attempted to refute Romney. Obama’s most specific answer thus far: a defense of government spending on Big Bird and Planned Parenthood.
Another “uncommitted voter,” a young woman, asked about equal pay for women, to set Obama up to discuss the Lilly Ledbetter Act – one of his few actual legislative achievements that have not blown up in his face. Both Obama and Romney answered fine, but Romney’s answer scored much better with women than with men. Some tweeters LOL’d at Romney’s answer that he sought to hire women when he was governor in Massachusetts, by having “binders full of women” (their qualifications) brought to him. Had Bill Clinton been anywhere near the stage, the debate would have taken an interesting turn. He got to the bottom line when he said that the current economy is hurting everyone including women.
Another “uncommitted voter” asked Romney to differentiate himself from former President Bush. This was an obvious call to attack a fellow Republican and dispirit his party’s base. She did allow that Obama has “disappointed” her. It’s funny how no “uncommitted voters” ask Obama how he isn’t Jimmy Carter. But that might hit a little too close to home. Romney said that he and Bush are “different people” with different policies before launching into several detailed critiques of ObamaCare and its impact on business, and Obama’s deficits, which have eclipsed those racked up by Bush.
An “uncommitted voter” who allowed that he voted for Obama in 2008 asked the president to justify voting for him again. Softball city. Obama claimed to have created 5 million jobs and said that he had kept all of his promises. Obama ripped Romney for what the president called a lack of leadership. Obama bragged when he should have sounded a note, at least, of regret. Romney took his turn to note that the economy Obama described is not good and electing him to four more years will yield more of the same. He dinged Obama for promising to have us at 5.4% unemployment, to reform Medicare and Social Security by now, and to deal with immigration. Obama, Romney said, has done none of these while he has also doubled the national debt. “The middle class is getting crushed under the policies of a president who does not understand” the economy, Romney said. Whether Romney won the “uncommitted voter” over or not, he succinctly detailed Obama’s record of failure. “The president has tried, but his policies haven’t worked.” It was, as one tweeter noted, Romney’s “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” moment. It could have come across more clearly, though.
Why did Candy Crowley have a Latina ask the question about immigration? Because that’s just how things are done now. It’s as if the only immigrants who matter are from Mexico and are here illegally. What a disservice to everyone from every country who respects our laws and sovereignty. The answers might come in less predictably if Crowley had, say, a black construction worker ask about immigration policy and enforcement. On immigration policy, both candidates welcomed legal immigrants. Obama called illegal border crossers “undocumented workers,” going politically correct rather than legally accurate. Obama said we need to keep “gangbangers” out. Who disagrees with that? Obama accused Romney of supporting Arizona’s immigration law, which still enjoys majority support nationwide.
More than one hour in, an “uncommitted voter” finally asked about Libya: “Who denied enhanced security, and why?” Obama lauded our diplomats. Obama said he told the State Department to beef up security worldwide after the Benghazi attack began (field officers had been begging for more security for months). Obama attacked Romney for speaking up on the night of the attacks. But Obama never defended American values that night, and has assailed them by blaming the attacks on a video ever since. Then he bragged about fulfilling some unrelated problems. Oh, he promised an investigation and said that “ultimately I am responsible” for security. Secretary of State Clinton beat Obama to that last part on Monday. Obama never really answered the question, who denied security and why? Romney noted sharply that the president flew to a Vegas fundraiser the day after the attack, rather than determine what had happened. Romney nailed Obama for the administration’s claim that the attacks stemmed from a protest, not terrorist activity.
Crowley asked Obama about Clinton’s accepting responsibility for the security failure at Benghazi. Obama said, “She works for me, and I’m always responsible.” Obama huffed and said the suggestion that “anybody on my team would play politics or mislead” is offensive. “That’s not what we do,” he said. But they did. Repeatedly. The whole world saw it. The president’s team including Ambassador Susan Rice and Secretary State Clinton and spokesman Jay Carney and himself blamed it on a movie and a “spontaneous protest.” The man who allegedly made the movie was rousted at midnight by federal law enforcement and is now in jail. The president’s team spent $70,000 on ads in Pakistan blaming the attacks on a movie and a protest. Who authorized that? We still do not know. Romney could have done better here by being a bit more sharp and aggressive. He seemed a bit unsure of himself after moderator Crowley allowed that while Obama had described “acts of terror” the day after the attacks, he and his team also took two weeks to climb down from blaming Benghazi on a movie. Crowley had bailed Obama out of a sticky moment when he needed it most.
On a question about gun control and violence, Romney brought up Fast and Furious. He noted that that “program of the government” resulted in deaths of Americans and Mexican citizens, and dinged Obama for invoking executive privilege to halt the investigation. Ann Coulter tweeted that Obama has been busy taking assault weapons out of the hands of those guarding our embassies. Obama dinged Romney for changing his mind on banning assault weapons. But Gitmo is still open, Mr. President.
The fire left the debate after the risky Libya exchange. Obama was clearly rattled and went on offense to distract from the ongoing cover-up. Romney never quite fired off a definitive quip to frame the moment, and seemed to lose energy after that heated exchange. Crowley had by now clearly selected most of the most difficult questions for Romney. Obama had yet to fire off his awaited “47%” line, but had chided Romney for alleged softness on China and other misdeeds. I had tweeted earlier that Obama had nothing but Big Bird and a big mouth that he used to speak in platitudes. Obama saved the awaited punch for his final statement, when Romney could not rebut it. Clever, but also crass.
The final clock score had Obama in the lead by more than three full minutes. But Romney wins this debate easily. He could have run up the score on Libya and Fast and Furious but did not. He did not end Obama’s chances tonight, but Obama did not change the story that has dominated since the first debate. Romney is clearly the more informed and presidential of the two candidates. He can speak in numbers and facts, while Obama speaks in mere rhetoric. The differences between the quality and qualities of the two candidates is obvious and November 6 presents what should be an easy choice. Whether Mitt Romney’s ideas are the right ones or not remains to be seen, but he has earned the chance to implement them, while Barack Obama has earned an early leave into the job market he has created.
The media will say that Obama was “much improved” tonight. He was. But he did not change the trajectory of the race.
Update: Candy Crowley really bailed Obama out on Libya. In fact, when she corrected Romney, she was wrong. It is outrageous that a reporter inserted herself into the debate to correct a candidate and was, herself, wrong on the facts. It is outrageous that she defended Obama on a point on which he was wrong. She turned one of the most important moments for one side and against another.