Foreign Policy Debate

10.17.12

Robert Shrum: Obama Had Everything On the Line and Delivered, While Romney Sputtered

Sit down, Mitt—the president just passed you by. Robert Shrum breaks down Romney’s mistakes, Obama’s success—and why Republicans are already trying to turn the public against Candy Crowley.

Wow.

You didn’t need a poll to tell you what happened, but the instant surveys exploded in a geyser of good news for President Obama. For example, in Colorado, in a Public Policy Polling sample that was 3 percent more Republican, respondents rated the President the winner 48 to 44 percent-- and crucially, independents thought he prevailed 58 to 36 percent. The CBS survey of uncommitted voters gave Obama a seven-point margin, and he held a 13-point advantage on “helping the middle class.” There was a similar verdict in the CNN poll of debate viewers; and even though it was once again heavily weighted towards Republicans—by 8 points—Obama finished 7 ahead.

On MSNBC, Chris Matthews awarded six of the ten questions raised in the debate to the President, called three a tie and gave just one to Romney. I can’t figure out which one. Even on energy, where the Republican was pounding a pander to the coal states, Obama shredded him: “[when] you were governor of Massachusetts, you stood in front of a coal plant and... said ‘this plant kills,’ and took great pride in shutting it down.”

During the same exchange, Romney harped on gas prices, Obama shot back that prices—and demand—were lower four years ago because “the economy was on the verge of collapse...as a consequence of some of the same economic policies that Governor Romney’s now promoting.” Time and again, the President turned arguments to his advantage. To my relief—and his— Andrew Sullivan did finally come back off the ledge—and not by a little—and proclaimed that Obama “dominated... in every single way.”

As I argued after the President’s parlous performance in the first debate, this guy is a fourth-quarter player who rises to the occasion under pressure. The Democratic sackcloth and ashes were, to put it mildly, premature given a history which had seen Obama ignite his flagging 2008 campaign with an electric speech at the Iowa-Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner—and then a few months later, triumph over Hillary Clinton in the South Carolina primary debate, sealing both his victory in that state and for all intents and purposes his grip on the nomination. And Obama responded again after Scott Brown’s election in Massachusetts sounded the apparent signal that health reform was dead. It wasn’t, the President insisted; and within months, he was signing the greatest single piece of progressive in half a century and more.

For his supporters, the perils of Obama are all too real. But it’s worth remembering that in the end, this intensely competitive leader who fiercely cares about his campaigns and his causes always comes through. So it was at the Hofstra debate. With everything on the line, Obama showed up—and brought his best game. He was cool, relaxed, and empathetic—striking just the right tone as he refused to let Romney lie his way to the White House.

In contrast, the Republican nominee was obviously exasperated as he played the part of a failed bully. He was downright rude to the moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley. It’s not a good idea for any candidate, especially not one on the wrong side of the gender gap, to push a woman around. Romney got the blame for trying, but none of the gains he extorted from the hapless Jim Lehrer. Crowley reigned the candidate in, and at one point told him firmly and justifiably to sit down. I’ll bet no one ever did that to the CEO of Bain.

Mitt’s mistake was a classic. He came to the second debate thoroughly prepared for the first one . He offered up a repeat—often nearly word for word—of what he had said two weeks before.

Mitt’s mistake was a classic. He came to the second debate thoroughly prepared for the first one. He offered up a repeat—often nearly word for word—of what he had said two weeks before. There was nothing new. Every pitch had already been telegraphed. The President knew what Romney would do, consistently pre-empted him, and then defined his tax plan before the Republican could falsify it.

On the auto bailout, Obama knocked out an opponent who blithely ignored the fact that the industry could not have been saved without an emergency infusion of federal cash. To voters, the stubbornly unspecific Romney looked like a risk to everything from their home interest mortgage deduction to Medicare and health coverage for pre-existing conditions. He was crushed on immigration, for all of his double talk, left gulping at the poison pills of “self-deportation” and his opposition to the Dream Act.

Social issues like that—on which Romney was “severely conservative” in the GOP primary, but that he doesn’t want to discuss now—were center stage because real people were asking questions about things that really matter in their lives. Thus on women’s rights, Romney ducked equal pay and told an elaborate, off-point story about appointing women to his Massachusetts Cabinet. It was, of course, inaccurate. He pointed proudly to his “binder ” containing women’s resumes. It wasn’t compiled by him or his staff; it was apparently a nonpartisan document handed to him in the days after the election. The reference—and the evasion—spoke volumes about his condescending attitude toward women.

He was promptly nailed by the President for his refusal to support the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. And Obama arraigned his Republican rival not just for seeking to outlaw abortion, but for proposing to deny coverage for contraceptive services and to defund Planned Parenthood, which provides life-saving mammograms for women across the country. This was exactly the dividing line the President hoped—and plotted—to draw.

In one of the debate’s pivotal moments, Romney was asked how he was different from George W. Bush. He biffed and blathered; no one will recall what he said other than the cliche he offered up that “these are different times.” Obama did what you would expect: he dispensed with the claim that the Romney plan “is so different from what [Bush] would have done,” pointing out that its “centerpiece” is tax cuts similar to Bush’s, which resulted in the massive deficits of the past decade. The Romney policies, the President suggested, also “focused on the top doing very well and middle class folks not doing very well.”

Obama, however, promptly pivoted to the unexpected to press his case on social issues. Yes, Romney was different from Bush—who didn’t propose Vouchercare instead of Medicare, who didn’t oppose but “embraced” immigration reform, and who didn’t attempt to decimate Planned Parenthood. You had to think Romney’s minders hadn’t anticipated the glaringly predictable question about Bush—and that the President was ready to hit it out of the auditorium. His response was one of the cleverest moves in the debate.

The dumbest was Romney’s nakedly cynical, uninformed, and nakedly political attempt to exploit the killing of four American diplomats in Libya. A lot has been—and will be—written about the ensuing exchange, and especially about Crowley’s on-the-spot fact checking when Romney charged that it took the President two weeks to call the attack an “act of terror.” Obama said that was wrong; Romney persisted; and Crowley interjected that one day afterwards, the President had called it exactly that. The Republicans’ would-be commander-in-chief looked as if he’d been hit in the face by a wet fish. Doesn’t anybody brief him on basic facts? Romney’s ploy was ugly and craven—and it blew up right there in front of him.

Expect the right wing propagandists to trash Crowley—they’ve even already started. NewsBusters was instantly typical: “Candy Crowley Disgraces Herself...Outrageous Tag Team Hit On Romney.” Crowley only did what a good journalist should—and she did it bravely and brilliantly. But just wait until Rush Limbaugh bloviates his venom on Thursday. Such reactions are the most persuasive verdict of all; the side that traduces the moderator in effect confesses to losing the debate.

The outcome was reinforced in the final minutes. The last questioner asked each candidate what is the “biggest misconception that the American people have about you?” Romney responded with a passable, if jumbled and unmemorable, disquisition about God, the Olympics, and the congregants in trouble whom he had helped at his church.  But he led with his chin, throwing in the reassurance that “I care about 100 percent of the American people.”

The President pounced after disavowing the misconception that he believes “government creates jobs,” and then turned and assailed Romney’s notorious comments that were “behind closed doors” dissing 47 percent of Americans for “refus[ing] to take personal responsibility.” Obama described them with a plain-spoken eloquence: “folks on Social Security... veterans... students... soldiers... people who pay payroll taxes, gas taxes, but don’t make enough” to pay income taxes.

The debate was over—in every sense of the word. The candidate from the rich and for the rich had no chance to reply. It was reminiscent of Ronald Reagan, who in 1980 saved his most lethal line for a closing statement at the very end of his face off with Jimmy Carter: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” All Carter could do was smile wanly and shake hands.

For Democrats, Hofstra was happy nights are here again—then and there and probably on Election Day. The comedian Patton Oswalt tweeted: “This isn’t so bad for Romney. He can easily win [in November] without single moms, immigrants, the middle class or all women.”

That about sums up a debate which was a demographic, substantive, and stylistic train-wreck for Romney—and a masterful comeback for the once and future President Obama.