Forget about Barack Obama’s eagerly awaited emergence from his first debate coma: the biggest question about the second candidate confrontation centered on whether Mitt managed to maintain his undeniable momentum.
After all, a flurry of pre-debate polls showed Romney as the newly minted frontrunner—especially a Gallup survey that gave him a commanding 50-46 percent lead among likely voters in all twelve swing states, including such purportedly impregnable Democratic bastions as Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and (surprise!) New Mexico.
Did the Mittster do anything to disrupt or accelerate his apparent progress toward a solid victory on Tuesday, Nov. 6, which is three weeks from last night?
The best way to answer that question involves a consideration of Romney’s biggest score, his weakest moment, and the evening’s overarching impressions and emotional takeaway.
BIGGEST SCORE: Romney helped himself enormously by stating and restating the essential theme of his campaign for the presidency: The last four years have damaged and disappointed the United States and, under new leadership, we can and will do better. This pitch deliberately echoes the “we can do bettah” line that allowed John F. Kennedy, the last president from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, to defeat Richard Nixon in 1960.
In this context, Romney relentlessly and repeatedly recited the painful results of Obama’s leadership: high unemployment, lower income for the middle class, higher gas prices and insurance premiums, increased poverty and swelling dependence on government transfer payments. With his confident delivery of this obvious indictment, Romney gained a double benefit: discrediting Obama at the same time he demonstrated his own compassion for and identification with the real suffering of everyday Americans.
Romney deployed the term “middle class” with promiscuous abandon, emphasizing his concern for 100 percent of the populace, so that when Obama used his closing statement to finally get around to citing the controversial “47 percent” remarks that Romney himself has forcefully repudiated, it seemed like an irrelevant afterthought. Surprisingly, Obama’s boasts about his own achievements (more resources for border security, five and a half million new jobs, the utterly meaningless Lilly Ledbetter Act, and so forth) never even attempted to rebut Romney’s assertions (echoing Joe Biden) that the middle class “has been buried.” No one watching this debate could reasonably doubt that Romney has staked his entire argument for new leadership on the concerns of hard-pressed ordinary Americans, not the interests of pampered plutocrats.
ROMNEY’S WEAKEST MOMENT—WHICH ALSO HELPED HIM. Unfortunately for the GOP nominee, his most awkward moment occurred during the debate’s single most dramatic confrontation—a complicated three-way tangle that drew in moderator Candy Crowley for an utterly outrageous effort to tag-team the governor.
Defending his clumsy mishandling of the recent terrorist attack on the American Consulate in Benghazi, the president of the United States baldly declared: “The day after the attack, governor, I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people in the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened. That this was an act of terror and I also said that we’re going to hunt down those who committed this crime.”
It’s true that his statement on September 12 included the admirable lines “we will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act. And make no mistake, justice will be done.”
But he never directly identified the consulate attack as an “act of terror,” as he claimed. While implicitly denouncing the anti-Muslim video that his administration mistakenly associated with the tragedy (“Since our founding, the United States has been a nation that respects all faiths. We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.”) the president’s Rose Garden statement used the word terror only once. This came in a general statement of resolve near the very end of his remarks when he declared: “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.”
Not only did the president fail to label the Benghazi outrage a terrorist assault, but it’s inescapably accurate that his U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice went on television to describe the incident as a “spontaneous protest” for days after Obama spoke. In fact, the president himself addressed the U.N. a week later and mentioned the low-budget film Innocence of the Muslims a dozen times but never once pinned responsibility for the Benghazi murders on al Qaeda or even hinted in that forum that they amounted to terrorist atrocities.
Governor Romney, in other words, possessed ample grounds to challenge the president’s fatuous and misleading assertion that he had immediately identified the incident as an “act of terror” but Mitt made the mistake of wading into a pointless dispute about parsing words where the reputedly impartial moderator ended up outrageously taking sides. “He did call it an act of terror,” Candy Crowley authoritatively and inaccurately declared, while allowing that “it did as well take two weeks or so for the whole idea there being a riot out there about this tape to come out. You are correct about that.”
In other words, the CNN anchor inserted herself into the proceedings as a patient pedagogue correcting her earnest but unsophisticated pupils, granting Obama an “A” for accuracy while awarding poor Mitt little better than a "C+" consolation prize. The entire digression undoubtedly puzzled the weary audience while allowing the president to skate free of serious damage (for now) on the woefully mismanaged Libyan tragedy.
Nevertheless, this brief combination of farce and melodrama will nonetheless benefit the Romney campaign for two reasons:
First, any prolonged discussion of Libya obviously hurts the president, not Romney, and the mangled muddle in this encounter fairly begs for clarification in the next debate, which is supposed to focus on foreign policy anyway. On that occasion Romney may even be able to make clear that on his basic indictment of Obama’s ineptitude and confusion he was right while the president and, yes, Candy Crowley, were wrong.
Which raises the second hidden advantage for the GOP in the second debate’s most uncomfortable and confusing moments. Crowley’s misguided malfeasance in the moderator’s role should produce a morning-after apology, but even if it doesn’t it feeds into the powerful (and largely accurate) conservative meta-narrative about prevailing media bias. Can anyone open-mindedly read the transcripts of the debate, and go back to the transcript of the Rose Garden statement that Crowley recklessly mischaracterized, and honestly suggest that she acted the part of an effective honest broker?
Polling suggests that hefty majorities of Americans (including most of the all-important independents) already assume that major media report the news with a generous dose of political bias. The fact that Romney held his own in this setting (the early post-debate polls suggest that uncommitted voters saw the duel as a virtual draw) only makes his performance more impressive.
And that conclusion raises the final and perhaps most significant point about the overall impression conveyed by the evening’s encounter—
EMOTIONAL TAKEAWAY: The most important question in every debate isn’t who won, but rather who looked like a winner. Few viewers will note the details of the bitter but befuddling arguments but they register a general impression of the two men who seek to lead them.
Obviously, President Obama did present a far more compelling image than the listless and seemingly sedated figure that showed up at Denver two weeks ago. But his energy this time seemed forced, defensive, edgy, and negative. Even when trying to peddle the notion that his administration’s epic achievements had brought great progress to the nation’s suffering multitudes, he looked glum and troubled. Once again, he allowed Romney to seize the mantle of the-man-with-the-plan and the disputants devoted far more time to arguing over Romney’s proposals for change than evaluating Obama’s bold agenda for his second term—a given, since there is still no bold agenda for that prospective second term.
Americans almost always turn to the more optimistic candidate, especially in times of trouble and once again, Romney hammered home his confidence in his own ability to alter the nation’s trajectory. He missed plenty of opportunities—particularly in responding to Obama’s demagoguery on Planned Parenthood, which relies for federal funding for only a small minority of its more than billion-dollar budget, and on contraceptive availability, since the issue is whether religious institutions must provide such benefits for free, not whether they’ll be available at all.
Nevertheless, all those who believe that Barack Obama actually won this debate should confront a fundamental question: which candidate on that stage could you more easily envision presiding over a victory celebration on the night of the 6th of November?
For President Obama, looking grey and gloomy and beleaguered, it’s not hard to imagine a mournful, poetic, impassioned concession statement offered to his weeping and broken-hearted followers. One can almost hear the elegiac words about the noble failures of the last four years: “We’ve traveled a long and difficult road together, but despite all the bumps and sudden turns, we know that America will get there. We will get there!...With hope and change, It’s not the destination; it’s the journey!”
In the case of Governor Romney, even after this complex and indecisive debate, it’s simple to see him morphing directly from this stage to a scene of balloons and confetti, hugging his wife and innumerable grandchildren, and seizing that dramatic moment to launch the nation toward a deeply craved fresh start.