Review of the second presidential debate

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.


  1. slc1 says

    Prof. Singham should be aware that presidential candidates always bash China (as I recall, Obama did so in 2008) and when they get into office, forget all about what they said during the campaign. The fact that China holds more then 1/2 of US dept in the form of Treasury instruments seems to sober them up once in office. Should Romney win the election, I believe that I can confidently predict that he would do likewise.

  2. tubi says

    With respect to Detroit, the difference is in how the auto companies were supported during their bankruptcy. Romney suggested they simply declare bankruptcy and shutter their facilities and then work out a restructuring plan. That would have put thousands of people out of work, at least temporarily.

    Obama’s approach was to allow the bankruptcies to occur, but with government guaranteed loans of around $8 bln that enabled GM and Chrysler to stay open and operating while they restructured. So all those people kept their jobs-most of them, anyway.

    When Romney heard about that he suggested that the loans should be provided and guaranteed by the private sector, although he didn’t say who had that kind of money and the wherewithal to lose it if it didn’t work. And Zeus forbid that the government come in an help American workers keep their jobs. Reagan famously said that the most frightening words in English were, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” Well, the government came in and helped, and Detroit and the auto industry are better now than they were 4 years ago. So there.

  3. anteprepro says

    Prof. Singham should be aware that presidential candidates always bash China (as I recall, Obama did so in 2008) and when they get into office, forget all about what they said during the campaign.

    Romney’s a bit more aggressive on the subject.

    In the face of China’s accelerated military build-up, the United States and our allies must maintain appropriate military capabilities to discourage any aggressive or coercive behavior by China against its neighbors. Maintaining a strong military presence in the Pacific is not an invitation to conflict. Quite the contrary; it is a guarantor of a region where trade routes are open and East Asia’s community of nations remains secure and prosperous.

    Toward that end, the United States should maintain and expand its naval presence in the Western Pacific. We should be assisting partners that require help to enhance their defensive capabilities. The Department of Defense should reconsider recent decisions not to sell top-of-the-line equipment to our closest Asian allies. We should be coordinating with Taiwan to determine its military needs and supplying them with adequate aircraft and other military platforms. We should be assisting Pacific nations to enhance maritime domain awareness, i.e., the ability to employ radar and other detection networks to monitor aggressive behavior in disputed waters. This would minimize the chance of surprise confrontations and prevent military miscalculations that can escalate into larger conflicts….

    Our objective is not to build an anti-China coalition. Rather it is to strengthen cooperation among countries with which we share a concern about China’s growing power and increasing assertiveness and with whom we also share an interest in maintaining freedom of navigation and ensuring that disputes over resources are resolved by peaceful means. It is yet another way of closing off China’s option of expanding its influence through coercion.

    Mitt Romney will also pursue deeper economic cooperation among like-minded nations around the world that are genuinely committed to the principles of open markets through the formation of a “Reagan Economic Zone.” The benefits of this zone—which will codify principles of free trade—will be a powerful magnet that draws in an expanding circle of nations seeking greater access to other markets. Although China is unlikely to accede to the Reagan Economic Zone given its current approach to trade, offering Beijing the possibility of participation will give China significant incentives to end its abusive commercial practices. But with or without China as a member, the Reagan Economic Zone will establish a system of trade that could knit together the entire region, discouraging imbalanced bilateral trade relations between China and its neighbors, limiting China’s ability to coerce other countries, and ultimately encouraging China to participate in free trade on fair terms.

    Increased military presence, better military equipment for regions around China, and a Capitalist-Loving team of countries existing only to reduce China’s “influence”. And this is part of his platform, given almost an entire page on the subject. He is deadly serious about China. Also doesn’t much care for Russia , but doesn’t have much planned to do about it that seems as openly antagonistic (aside from wanting to “review” a recent nuclear arms treaty). But don’t get him started about Iran (Plan: Military presence in area, make it clear that military response to nuclear arms advancement is an option, sanctions, support opposition, missile defense)

    Saying that Romney might start one new war might be an underestimate.

  4. says

    I’ve been a bit baffled that ABC News has been paying a bunch of attention to Romney’s “binder full of women” (hope I quoted that correctly) comment. Yeah, I get it that the comment makes no sense as a standalone. But there was enough context there to understand what he was trying to say. Words escape me for how to describe how silly it is to focus on a relatively harmless slip-up.

  5. fastlane says

    I’ve been a bit baffled that ABC News has been paying a bunch of attention to Romney’s “binder full of women” (hope I quoted that correctly) comment. Yeah, I get it that the comment makes no sense as a standalone. But there was enough context there to understand what he was trying to say. Words escape me for how to describe how silly it is to focus on a relatively harmless slip-up.

    It’s becuase they’ve learned from Faux Noise what ‘works’. In addition, Rmoney’s claims have already been shown to be mostly false on that point anyway. I think the article I saw was on ‘the Naion’s website, but linked from somewhere else for the actual data.

  6. says

    If he’s not advocating any tax hikes to pay for the military buildup and the foreign aid, then no, he’s not serious about getting taxpayers to pay for it.

  7. damianregalado says

    It’s funny because I called this in the first debate and nobody knew what I was talking about. Obama clearly “Roped a Dope”… I’m under the age of 30 and know what that means but if you don’t know what it means… Type ALI in GOOGLE and read as much as possible until you figure it out. That or ask your parents or grand parents… Obama is not a stupid man and he is sincere. Romney… who knows what his agendas may be. Obama asked for two terms right from the start and that’s what I’m on board for.

  8. Reginald Selkirk says

    Here’s someone expounding on Romney’s impressive showing in second debate

    In my judgment, Romney, who stole the show in the first debate, made a decidedly impressive showing in the second also, making his points with telling effect and firm conviction, and smoothly weaving into his exposition of the issues facts and figures which exactly fitted his proposals without sounding contrived or far-fetched.

    No matter how they sounded, they were contrived.

  9. anteprepro says

    I’m sure between all the revenue generating tax cuts, crippling teacher’s unions, cutting public broadcasting and other such “excess” spending, that Romney will get more than enough cash to blow on military ventures. I am sure it isn’t just an incredibly violent, naive, economically destructive right-wing pipe dream.

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