The second debate proved to be lively, with sharp exchanges between the candidates, dispelling the myth that the town hall format required candidates to tread gingerly, since being aggressive might turn off voters. I never bought that argument, which infantilizes voters and sees them as delicate flowers who wilt at seeing spirited debate. People who tune in to a political debate when they have so many other options are people who don’t need smelling salts at the first sign of disagreement.
It was clear that president Obama had learned from his vice president a key rule of debate, that you have to keep your opponent on the defensive and explaining away his positions. He seemed determined from the start to go on the offensive, fact checking his opponent in real time, and essentially calling him a liar many times, though he used the more polite euphemism of saying that his statements were ‘not true’. What surprised me was that Mitt Romney did not seem to expect this and seemed flustered and off-balance at times, though he did try to respond in kind. Often he seemed to be pleading with the moderator for another chance to rebut Obama’s earlier points and it never looks good to plead.
This caused Romney to make some tactical errors, not fatal but the kinds of things that tend to be picked up by the media. It seemed to me that Romney is not used to people telling him to his face that he is wrong, which Obama started doing right from the beginning and kept doing throughout the evening. Of course, people who end up in positions of power, and that includes Obama, tend to share that same failing but a good politician is able to mask it, at least in public.
Obama managed to squeeze in the various charges that had worked for him so far, that Romney wanted the auto industry to go bankrupt, that he is a plutocrat who pays taxes at a lower rate than ordinary people, that his business career has been built on outsourcing jobs and profiting from the failure of businesses, that the Republican policies would hurt women, and that his tax and defense spending plans would cost around $8 trillion dollars and his plan to recover that money elsewhere was all smoke and mirrors designed to benefit the wealthy and hurt the middle class.
Romney’s errors were mostly tactical, sometimes arising from his business wonkiness. In trying to defend himself from the charge that he would have allowed the auto industry to go bankrupt, he argued that what Obama did was also, in effect, a bankruptcy. In a technical sense that may be true (I have no idea) but the public definitely does not see it that way, with the ‘Obama saved Detroit’ meme having taken hold too firmly. Romney also seems to think that attacking China relentlessly is a winning issue and that he would bring China to its knees on the day he took office. How many people think that this is likely or that China is a major issue?
The same thing occurred when defending himself from the charge that his company Bain outsourced jobs. He tried to make out that Obama’s pension portfolio probably also contains companies that outsource, and he even (unbelievably) mentioned the Cayman Islands, an unforced error drawing even more attention to an aspect of his finances that show that he lives in a different world. This enabled Obama to crack that his pension was not as big as Romney’s, which was the one big laugh line of the night, and brought to mind Romney’s ill-advised $10,000 bet to Rick Perry.
It is true that all of us who have retirement funds like 401(k) plans likely have links to companies whose policies we abhor. But I know that I never look at anything except the total amount in my account because I don’t think like an investor. I suspect that most people are like me and don’t see themselves investors or speak that language. Romney was again also ill-advised in trying to argue that his tax plans would benefit the middle class because they would not tax investment income and capital gains and interest. Ordinary people do not see themselves as having investment income and capital gains, and their interest income from savings is so small in these days of low interest rates that this would not be a big issue. All three things matter to wealthy people who get most of their income from those sources but that again shows that his is a different world.
Romney’s biggest tactical error was concerning the attack on the Libyan consulate where he blew his big chance by violating a cardinal debate rule, and that is to be shown to be wrong on a matter of fact when you are confident that you are right. (I once won a debate for precisely that reason.) During the debate Obama said that he had described the consulate attack the next day as an act of terror. Romney pounced on what he thought was a misstep and insisted that it go on the record because he was convinced that Obama did not use the word terror until two weeks later. But it not only turns out he was wrong, the moderator said immediately that it was in the transcript of Obama’s remarks. Romney was deflated and did not seem to recover.
The last tactical error was when he decided to use the last question about what he thought was the biggest misconception about him to say that he cared for 100% of the population. As a former debater, I cringed when he said this because he was leaving himself wide open for Obama to bring up his infamous 47% comments, and Obama had little trouble making that slam-dunk. What was Romney thinking, especially since Obama’s would be the last word and leave the final impression? Romney should have instead made some little joke about people thinking he had no sense of humor before pivoting to his closing statement.
So if I were a debate judge and had to declare a winner, I would have to give the debate to Obama on tactical points, in that he managed to put Romney on the defensive for most of the night. But again it was not a blowout and I have no idea what the media consensus will be.
Now it is time for me to check what everyone else is saying.