Well, Fox was calling it a draw, and its anchors started blaming Candy Crowley for how it all went down 32 seconds after it ended. Need to know anything else?
Obama won the debate. Won it big. Maybe not as big as Romney won the first one, but big enough to be clear. More interesting than that, though, is the way he won it. Name me one person—it surely wasn’t me—who would have said three hours ago that Obama’s best moment of the night, yes, Obama’s, would be Benghazi?
There were other moments. Obama won the immigration discussion. He won guns, to the extent anyone’s voting on that. He won taxes. Taxes—weird. I was shocked that Romney stood by his 20 percent and insisted that his math does add up.
That was fascinating and is worth dwelling on for a moment. I had thought coming in that Romney would keep moving to the middle. That would have meant bending even more on the tax plan, which is still coming under criticism, even increased criticism, for its fuzzy math. I thought he’d back off it. But he doubled-down. That means he and his team thought they’d covered that moderate base, that they couldn’t go any farther to the center without risking some alienation on the base. So he stuck to his guns, and Obama took that round strongly.
Obama really won the George W. Bush question. At first I thought he was losing that one. What’s he doing getting mired in a trade discussion? Tie Romney to Bush, tie Romney to Bush! But then he hit a bank shot that no one anticipated: Romney is to Bush’s right—on immigration, on women’s health issues, on Medicare. Great stuff. Romney had no answer.
Now, Benghazi. What was Romney doing? That was really surprising. Of all the attacks he had at his disposal, was hitting Obama for going to a fund-raiser really the strongest one? Not a chance. On the CNN dial meter, that went nowhere. It was a shocking waste of a key moment.
And that Obama riff about being the president was very alpha male, the kind of moment he needed, on exactly the issue he needed it: “That’s not what I do as president, and that’s not what I do as commander-in-chief.” And Romney not knowing that Obama called the attack an “act of terror” the day after? He just didn’t know. And Candy Crowley actually did now. Kudos to a moderator on a follow-up, for once. This takes a lot of air out of the Benghazi story.
And finally, the 47 percent moment. Why would Romney stick out his jaw like that? The last question. Romney going first. Knowing he’d have no chance to respond. Knowing also (as it had dawned on me about 15 minutes before) that Obama was about to go through two debates without mentioning the 47 percent. And Romney mentions that he cares about 100 percent. Here’s my jaw, Barack. Unreal.
For my money, Romney was the more different man tonight. Obama was plenty different from the first go-round. Even when not talking, he was good. The look on his face, the lean forward, looking like he was eager to get up out of his chair and take his turn at the mic, was right for TV. But as much as Obama was better than October 3, Romney was, uh, worser. He had a few good lines, but he left things on the floor. That battery company that Obama touted that just went bankrupt today. Where was that? And he was rude. A bully, and a whiny bully. Obama wasn’t light years better on that score, but Romney was awful. He clearly took his prep less seriously this time.
Maybe something else, too. Maybe he felt: Okay, I made my move to the middle last time. Now let’s go back to shoring up the base a little. You could see it here and there. Notably on taxes, as I mentioned, but I think on Benghazi, too—that “he flew off to Las Vegas” thing has been huge in right-wing media, but that isn’t what offends normal people. He went back to the base, and it hurt him.
So how much difference does it all make? Not as much as the first debate, but my guess is probably enough. Obama needs these kinds of headlines: He’s back! Obama shows some fight. Obama on his game. Et cetera. He’ll get those, and he earned them. The press was hungry two weeks ago to get Romney back in this thing, so there’d be a race to write about, so the stories would get eyeballs. Romney delivered, and the press wrote it. The same will happen now.
But this debate probably won’t change the dynamic as much as the first one did. Probably fewer people watched. But certainly liberals and Democrats got the boost they wanted. And that bogeyman—Obama can’t debate, he’s frozen, and my own contribution, does he even want this?—is off his back. It’s showtime.