If there was one conclusion most of the pundits drew from the first presidential debate, it was that Obama was functionally asleep and let Romney walk all over him. If there was a second conclusion, it was that Jim Leher was functionally asleep and let Obama and Romney walk all over him. So it isn’t surprising, especially after announcing that it would be the case, that Obama was much more aggressive and challenging for this match-up, the first and only Town Hall-style debate we’ll see this election. Romney must have known this, so he upped his game as well, and tensions ran high. Obama won the debate by being engaged, articulate, and right on the issues. But he got help from Romney, who emphatically lost it by over-correcting and quite frankly embarrassing himself.
It got awkward quickly. The very first question was from a college junior moaning about how hard it is for graduates to find work and he wondered what Romney planned to do about it. Romney was immediately on the attack, blaming Obama, but interestingly didn’t offer much in the way of a concrete plan to reduce unemployment for young graduates, or anyone really. Obama pounced by reminding us of Romney’s unfortunate 2008 op-ed entitled “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” and coming back with a specific, multi-point plan heavy on manufacturing and energy rhetoric. Romney’s counterargument was a fumble wherein he tried with little success to blame Obama for doing what he had proposed (i.e. bankrupting GM and Chrysler), followed finally by trotting out his much ballyhooed 5-point plan for economic recovery that is hot for small businesses and Latin American trade. Where was that in his initial reply? But Obama nailed it in his reply when he said:
Governor Romney doesn’t have a five-point plan; he has a one-point plan. And that plan is to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules. That’s been his philosophy in the private sector; that’s been his philosophy as governor; that’s been his philosophy as a presidential candidate.
Moderator Candy Crowley, CNN’s cheif political correspondent, was keen to move on, but Romney decided instead to make an ass of himself by trying really hard to interject yet again and call fowl on Obama’s retort. However, Candy must have learned from Jim and pushed back hard. And she won!
Next question: why is gas so goddamned expensive? I mean, I think a viscous oil extracted from the ground and refined at a different location, then trucked about the land and pumped into ludicrously heavy metal cages to propel them ten times faster than the average human can run should be deliciously cheap! Hell, I should have to pay more for bread! So whatever, they both said some platitudinous bullshit about their lack of a real energy plan. But it got interesting when Romney accused Obama of presiding over a net decrease in production on federal land (emphasis mine):
ROMNEY: And — and — and production on private — on government lands is down.
OBAMA: And the production is up. No it isn’t.
ROMNEY: Production on government land of oil is down 14 percent.
OBAMA: Governor —
ROMNEY: And production of gas is down 9 percent.
OBAMA: What you’re saying is just not true. It’s just not true.
MR. ROMNEY: I — it’s absolutely true. Look, there’s no question but that the people recognize that we have not produced more oil —
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I’ll give you your time. Go ahead.
MR. ROMNEY: [Lies and Bullshit] You’ll get your chance in a moment. I’m still speaking. (Chuckles.)
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, Governor, if — if you’re asking me a question, I’m going to answer it.
MR. ROMNEY: My — and the answer is I don’t believe people think that’s the case, because I — I’m — that wasn’t a question.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: OK. All right.
Whoa. Obama later secured a dig (despite it being a non sequitir) when he tied cheap gas in 2008 to the impending economic collapse. Romney managed only to induce cringing (emphasis mine):
CROWLEY: Mr. President, I got to — I got to move you along. And the next a question is for you —
ROMNEY: No, he — he gets the first — he actually got — he actually got the first question. So I get the last question — last answer on that one.
CROWLEY: If — actually, in the follow-up. It doesn’t quite work like that.
I like this moderator! But abuse of this sort from Romney didn’t stop. He later talked over her even as she said she’d be “run out of town” if she didn’t move the Town Hall along and complained one more time about not receiving proper followup time. She had to remind him twice that a question was specifically about assault weapons and not general second amendment issues (incidentally, he pedantically implied the solution to gun violence was better parenting). The most glaring lapse he committed was in returning to a previous question after he’d lost the shouting match with the moderator and an audience member had posed a great question about differentiating policy from those of Bush 43 (Romney: “I think I was supposed to get that last answer”; Obama: “I don’t think so, Candy”; Crowley: response time “not as structured as you think” — ouch!). How disrespectful not just to the moderator and the questioner, but the entire audience! He bitched about being interrupted even while he was aggressively interrupting. He looked like a disrespectful clown. It was embarrassing.
Of course it took a Town Hall to get any questions about women’s issues, and the one we got (about economic inequality) functioned to inspire the most hilarious enduring meme of the evening even before the debate was over: namely, mockery about a ridiculous and condescending anecdote about seeking out a ‘binder of women’ to aid in filling his cabinet. It turns out Romney lied about the binder, but that is arguably less important than the smarmy, dismissive tone of his irrelevant tale. Filling a cabinet with some women doesn’t fix widespread disparity in opportunity, and the fact that it (allegedly) happened ten years ago underscores its failure to inspire progress. Romney looked more a misogynist cheesball than anything else, and Obama carried the topic with the ammunition of his much more recent and effective legislation he signed to move toward equal pay in the workplace. I’ll argue the greatest result of this question is below:
Some of the questions were pretty good. One of the more insightful questions was about green cards, asked by a Latina. Both candidates tripped over themselves to pronounce her name correctly in what was perhaps the most transparent pandering of the evening. It also allowed for a jab from Obama when Romney awkwardly pressed about whether the former had recently checked his pension: “Mine isn’t as big as yours, so I don’t look at it that often.” Another question was great — why should we vote for Obama again after the widely shared disappointment of hope and change we’ve gotten since 2009 — but of courser nothing inspiring or informative was forthcoming.
But the most interesting exchange happened from another stupid question about security at the Libyan embassy (check out my VP debate review for my thoughts about the significance of addressing that issue). Romney alleged that Obama waffled for a while in revealing what had actually happened there, and this ensued (emphasis mine):
ROMNEY: Yeah, I — I certainly do. I certainly do. I — I think it’s interesting the president just said something which is that on the day after the attack, he went in the Rose Garden and said that this was an act of terror. You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack it was an act of terror. It was not a spontaneous demonstration.
OBAMA: [Awkward pause] Please proceed.
ROMNEY: Is that what you’re saying?
OBAMA: Please proceed, Governor.
ROMNEY: I — I — I want to make sure we get that for the record, because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.
OBAMA: Get the transcript.
CROWLEY: It — he did in fact, sir.
So let me — let me call it an act of terrorism — (inaudible) —
OBAMA: Can you say that a little louder, Candy? (Laughter, applause.)
MS. CROWLEY: He did call it an act of terror.
Did I mention I like this moderator? Some have said that she overstepped her bounds by fact-checking live, but I say that is what moderators should be doing a lot more of.
Closing arguments were more rhetoric. Obama played up education and attacked Romney about the secret 47% video. Romney talked up his faith and business record and attacked Obama’s jobs record. Nothing new here, but Romney so badly screwed up in his aggressive demeanour and weak position on the facts that Obama handily carried the debate.