Debate Night in America — Round 2

by: Michael Shields

The second of three 2012 general election presidential debates occurred last evening. Across the Margin’s Michael Shields assesses its dramatic effect.

I am of the opinion that far too much was made of Obama’s performance, or lack there of, in the first debate.  I am not sure what everyone expected out of President Obama, except possibly looking up from his podium from time to time – that would have been nice.  The truth is he has never been a bulldog in presidential debates.  Although proficient behind the microphone and a powerful orator with many a memorable speech under his belt, he has never been the type of politician to set his sights on his opponent and shoot to kill. It is just not in his nature, or more likely he has yet to have to.  On the other hand I was, of course, impressed with Mitt Romney’s competency as a debater. But, I cannot get on-board with the sentiment that the first debate was a landslide win for Mitt Romney when fabrications were at the core of his most pivotal arguments.

While not surprised the president wasn’t the aggressor, I was disappointed he acted so passively and did not quickly dismiss some of Mitt’s claims.  Why, when accused of doubling the deficit, did Obama just stand there and take it instead of simply explaining that the deficit was 1.4 trillion when he took office, and it now stands at 1.1 trillion?  Why did Obama not push back on the claim that half of the green businesses he supplied loan guarantees to went out of business when the truth is 23 out of the 26 are still alive and kicking1?  Why did he not mention that there is zero proof that Mitt’s proposed health care plan will cover those with pre-existing conditions as Mitt insisted it would? Zilch.  Zip.  Nada.  Maybe he was just beside himself with frustration that Mitt denied, in full, the 5 trillion dollar tax cut that would affect middle class families2?  I think that had him shook.

Historically the challenger has the advantage in the first debate, for obvious reasons, and Mitt did take full advantage of this opportunity3.  It was disheartening to many, myself included, but not unexpected, that the GOP framed the economic discussion with the question “Are you better off now than 4 years ago?” as this is a short-sighted view on the roots of our current economic crisis.  The idea of rolling back policies to the ones that led to so much hurt should scare all of us, regardless of party loyalties.  But, with all that said…..it is due time we move past our discussion of the first debate and look forward with hope that both parties stop harping on Big Bird and get back to the more pertinent matters at hand4.

So, since the first debate there have been a few events of note. Mitt went ahead and took a victory lap while the president came out swinging (a day late, a dollar short?) trying to tarnish Mitt for his lies.  Everyone had a laugh or two at the expense of the president, and those always confusing poll numbers rewarded Mitt for his performance5.  Then Mitt did the unthinkable and blasted Obama’s foreign policy as a complete disaster.  He called Obama’s leadership “passive” and proclaimed that it has directly lead to deadly terrorist attacks in Libya, unchecked bloodshed in Syria, allowed for unrestrained nuke building in Iran, and increased anti-US protests across the Middle East.  Yes, the man who couldn’t get out of London without insulting our closest ally is aggressively criticizing the man who killed bin Laden, helped overthrow Khaddafi, and ended the war in Iraq6.  Also, in the meantime, Joe Biden flexed his muscles some, displayed the awesome advances that have been made in the field of teeth whitening, single-handedly brought back the word malarkey, and presented himself as a snarky yet experienced and knowledgeable veteran of the White House – portraying a much finer Vice-Presidential candidate than Ryan, a young up and comer who comes off as green and uninformed.7

One other item of note took place during the hiatus between debates, and that is we caught a glimpse of the 21 page memorandum of understanding that both candidates signed before the first debate.  In short, it takes a whole lot of air out of the whole process.  This shameful binding contract stifled both spontaneity and the free speech of the “undecided” voters in attendance at the town hall style debate, amongst other things.

Last night at Hofstra University in Long Island, during a debate moderated by CNN’s Candy Crowley, both candidates faced challenges of different sorts and the pressure was indeed on each to deliver.  Obama, needing a bit of a “bounce back” debate, would have to show more enthusiasm, be more engaged. He would have to take Mitt to task on his claims and be the type of debater he has yet to be – one who fights. And Mitt’s challenge for the evening was to warm up his image some as he engaged with the audience and present a more detailed view of his entire platform.  One man was able to achieve his goal, the other has “binders full of woman.”

This debate, in a world ripe with far too much hyperbole, was appropriately billed as the single most important night of the campaign.  Debates matter, history has proved this to be true.  Before they took the stage Romney won the coin toss and would receive the first question of the evening.  It may have been his last victory of the evening as Obama, contrary to his prior debates persona, rolled up his sleeves and went to work.  It was apparent that the president was not playing when in response to the first question he faced he finally brought Mitt to task for being in favor of letting Detroit’s auto industry wither away into bankruptcy.  Minutes later Obama unveiled his tagline for the evening, one that was noticeably absent from their first debate: “What Governor Romney said just isn’t true.”  It is a problem for us all when candidate performance is completely disconnected from candidate policies8 and as unbecoming as it is for a presidential candidate to call another candidate on this stage a liar – it simply had to be done.

Things got heated.  President Obama and Mitt Romney circled each other on the stage like a pair of gunslingers at high noon engaging in animated finger pointing under the bright stage lights.  An awkward confrontation occurred early after a discussion about coal9, and the two men were nearly face to face.  Throughout the night Obama continued to call Mitt out for his lies10 as there are not fewer jobs than when Obama took office, as Mitt so often claims, and oil production on federal lands is indeed up – a contested fact present in both debates now.  At one point in the debate Obama was so bold as to imply that Mitt Romney would be a decidedly worse president than George W. Bush (in regards to social issues)11.

It was not entirely a one sided battle of course.  Mitt was fierce. He was at his best and most clear when he described the condition of our still struggling economy, excelling at scare tactics.  He frequently cut off the president, something the president is “beginning to get used to” and even jousted with the moderator throughout the night.   Obama doesn’t only not intimidate him, but his lack of fear of the commander-in-chief borders on complete disrespect.  Mitt refuses to leave any bullets in the barrel and is not going down (if he does indeed go down) without a fight.  You cannot blame him for this.  You can blame him for continuously saying anything to win over undecided voters – even declaring to be tolerant of immigrants in some capacity and also, unbelievably, of birth control12.

President Obama painted Mitt out to be a puppet of the wealthy, a man claiming to be for the middle class when everything he has said prior to the debates is in glaring contradiction.  He attacked Mitt’s 5-point plan, a plan Mitt refers to ad nauseum, with one of the more robust statements of the night: “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.” A much different Obama showed up last evening, one that was in attack mode all night; a man who learns from his mistakes.  Unlike the first debate President Obama did not look down once, keeping his unflinching gaze on Mitt whenever he was speaking.

Both candidates made every effort throughout the evening to appeal to female voters.  President Obama mentioned Mitt’s intent to cut government funding for Planned Parenthood upwards of four times13.  And Mitt mentioned that there are 3 and a half million more woman living in poverty today than when the president took office on multiple occasions.  Both made strong cases in a muted subdued tone venturing for the female vote, but only one man has a record of policies that truly seem interested in the health and well being of women14.  I believe this fact is well known on both sides of the table.

The environment and energy were once again a hot topic in these debates and drilling for oil and approving a Canadian pipeline15 were spoke of in depth.  This increase in drilling that Mitt speaks of, and the oil independence he yearns for, with never a mention of alternatives, continues to be concerning to those who favor the planet’s well being – and proves that Mitt might not just hate Big Bird, but he might actually hate all birds, seals, and possibly even polar bears (I am just speculating here).  Romney continually attacked Obama about the cost of gas which is in direct opposition to the very well known notion that presidents have almost no effect on energy prices; most are set on financial exchanges around the world.

Mitt looked like every bit the bully early and often, and was far from achieving his goal of coming off as approachable.  It appears as if the media created a monster by emphatically declaring him the winner of the last debate.  The confidence propagated in the first debate has grown in size to resemble nothing short of arrogance.

Awkward disputes were rife throughout the debate. At one point Romney confronted, literally, Obama about his pension, claiming that the President also has investments in Chinese companies.  The president had little to say in response to this unexpected piece of information except to declare he doesn’t look at his pension “It’s not as big as yours, so it doesn’t take long.”  This wasn’t the only time China was discussed, and I assure you the issue will be delved into with increased fervor in the 3rd and final debate, a debate focusing in on foreign affairs.

Mitt’s missteps throughout the evening came to a dizzying crescendo in what can only be referred to as “The Libya Moment” when Candy Crowley confirmed that Obama did indeed call the massacre in Benghazi an act of terror16.  Mitt never seemed able to recover from this moment, flustered to the point of declaring the answer to our nations gun control problems is marriage.  He did, however, seem to appropriately call out Obama on his handling of requests from diplomats for increased security at the embassy in Tripoli.  I am not alone in being unconvinced in Obama’s response 17.  But I am fully assured after last evening that the administration was not intentionally misleading in its shifting explanations concerning the attack in Benghazi, as Mitt implied.  The president’s retort on this accusation was clear as day, as he stared Mitt down and sternly scolded him: “The suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the secretary of state, our U.N. ambassador, anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own, Governor, is offensive.”

And then it happened, the moment many had been waiting for.  Obama, who had the opportunity to speak last, dropped the bomb he has had in tow for some time now.  Set up perfectly by Romney’s response to a question where he stated he cares about 100% of all people, Obama blasted the governor by declaring: “I believe that Governor Romney is a good man who loves his family. I also believe that when he said behind closed doors that 47 percent of people in this country consider themselves victims and refuse to take responsibility, he meant it.”  He then went on to describe whom these 47 percent actually are, a list that includes soldiers and veterans, the elderly, and students.  It was a perfect and decisive finishing move.

It appears Obama may possibly get away with barely showing up for the first debate. He stood strong and came to fight.  Both men appear to be ready to boldly battle for the throne they covet.  Two different visions, two sets of very different policies, sit upon the American table (both socially and economically) and in three weeks the nation will make the decision which man they trust to lead us the next four years.  In the next debate, which takes place this upcoming Monday from Boca Raton, Florida, the topic will be foreign affairs.  This is the one where Obama keeps Osama’s skull beneath the podium for a closing reveal.

  1. I am also curious why Obama – or even Jim Lehrer – didn’t ask Mitt if he would still let Detroit go bankrupt as he urged us to do four years ago? []
  2. The Tax Policy Center analysis of Romney’s proposal for a 20 percent across-the-board tax cut in all federal income tax rates, eliminating the Alternative Minimum Tax, the estate tax and other reductions, says it would be a $5 trillion tax cut. []
  3. Just as we shouldn’t be surprised in regards to the President’s behavior, we also shouldn’t be surprised with how Mitt approached the debate – as the Republican Party has a strong 44 year history of such deceitful activity; in fact with minimal research you can find Republican strategists discussing using distorted truths in debates as conceived strategy []
  4. A whole lot of chirping about a proposed cut by Romney that would slash a WHOPPING one HUNDRETH of one percent from the federal budget. []
  5. The fact that the country and media so wholeheartedly rewarded untruthful behavior is flat out harmful to our democracy []
  6. Well, kind of. Well, not really. A discussion for another day. []
  7. Green – not in the terms of environmental friendliness of course, but in the way that it was more than obvious this was his first major debate.  I believe that, for better or more likely worse, we will be seeing a whole lot of Paul Ryan for years to come – but it is clear as day he has much to learn at this point. []
  8. Both men can be faulted for this, one obviously more than another []
  9. Obama’s recounting an appearance by Romney, then governor of Massachusetts, at a coal-fired power plant where he vowed to shut it down emphatically challenged Mitt’s Mr.Coal image. []
  10. Mitt’s first lie happened only minutes into the debate when he claimed to support Pell Grants []
  11. Bush didn’t want to make Medicare into a voucher program, defund Planned Parenthood, and George Bush favored comprehensive immigration reform. []
  12. “Every woman in America should have access to contraceptives.” []
  13. He even took the time to point out specifically the importance of Planned Parenthood – including providing access to mammograms to those less fortunate. []
  14. Mitt’s bullying of moderator Candy Crowley and his dismissive description of his hiring practices were probably not the best way to exhibit a softer side to female voters []
  15. How is this Canadian pipeline a viable plan for energy independence? []
  16. “Can you say that a little louder Candy?” []
  17. I don’t think it is entirely crazy that we didn’t have the full scope of the story for two weeks, these things are complex.  We still do not have the truth or the full story about 9/11 and the war in Iraq from the Republicans and George Bush well over a decade later []

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