Ah, Tuesday evening, October 16 – the night Barack Obama proved he’s nothing like the New York Yankees. If you didn’t watch the second presidential debate you might have watched the Yankees game from Detroit, where they’re battling to see who will win the American League and get to play in the World Series. The Yankees’ backs were against the wall – they lost the first two games, unable to hit at all, and in the last inning of the second game lost their big star and team leader when Derek Jeter managed to break his ankle, with no help from anyone at all. Jeter just spun the wrong way on a throw. They had to carry him off the field and things were looking dismal as the series shifted to Detroit. Away games are always trouble and the Yankees absolutely had to win, just to get back in the thing, even if they were facing the best pitcher in baseball these days, Justin Verlander. They had to rise to the occasion. And they lost. Now, if they lose one more game, they all get to go home and mutter about what might have been, while they putter around the house, trying to find something vaguely useful to do. Spring training is a long way off.
Obama faced the same sort of thing. His performance in the first debate was lackluster at best. In baseball terms, he couldn’t buy a hit. Somehow Romney dominated him, even if Romney was throwing junk, if you want to extend the baseball metaphor. Obama tried to attack Romney’s policy positions, so clearly laid out over many months and refined in the endless Republican primary debates, and Romney threw him curve after curve – Romney said he never really said he wanted to cut taxes and particularly said he never said he ever said anything at all about lowering taxes on the rich, even if he had done so repeatedly. Obama couldn’t hit that curve, and there were many such curve balls, like Romney saying he really did like regulations, even if he’d been saying, over and over, forever, that regulations are killing the economy. Obama kind of just stood there. He didn’t even swing the bat. He was, so to speak, called out on strikes. He lost the game.
That’s why this second debate was so critical, a must-win to stay in contention. Lose one more – and there’s only one more debate, next Monday down in Boca Raton, on foreign policy – and Obama could find himself at home in Chicago in January muttering about what might have been, puttering around the house trying to find something vaguely useful to do, bugging the hell out of Michelle and the kids. And there would be no spring training. There wouldn’t be another season. Obama had to win this one.
He did. He swung the bat. He even hit the ball. He even scored some runs, even if there was no home run in the mix. Liz Goodwin at The Ticket summarizes it this way:
Romney kept up his Denver demeanor, attacking Obama on his jobs record, failure to pass immigration reform, policies in the Middle East, and other issues. But this time, instead of simply repeating portions of his stump speech, Obama was ready with specific retorts and counter-attacks. The president frequently accused Romney of twisting facts, occasionally interrupting him as he spoke.
At one point, the debate almost became a shouting match over whether President Obama had cut back oil extraction from public lands. Obama repeatedly said Romney was lying about his claim that oil production was down, pointedly saying, “Not true, Governor Romney.” Feeling the heat, moderator Candy Crowley took the candidates to another topic.
And there was this:
Romney took a detour on an answer on immigration reform to address Obama campaign claims that his personal fortune is invested in China and shielded from taxes. “Mr. President, have you looked at your pension?” he asked, implying the president is also unaware of the nature of his investments. “You know, I don’t look at my pension,” Obama retorted, adding, “It’s not as big as yours so it doesn’t take as long.”
Ouch. And it ended with this:
In the final question of the town hall debate, the candidates were asked what they thought the greatest misconception was about them. President Obama used the opportunity to explain his views on free enterprise — and to go after Mitt Romney’s secretly recorded comments about “47 percent” of Americans. With it being the final question of the night, Romney did not appear to have any chance to respond.
Obama started out nice:
I think a lot of this campaign, maybe over last four years, has been devoted to this notion that I think government creates jobs, that that’s somehow is the answer. That’s not what I believe. I believe that the free enterprise system is the greatest engine of prosperity the world’s ever known. I believe in self-reliance and individual initiative, and risk-takers be rewarded. But I also believe that everybody should have a fair shot, and everybody should do their fair share, and everybody should play by the same rules, because that’s how our economy is grown.
And then Obama went in for the kill:
I believe Gov. Romney is a good man – loves his family, cares about his faith. But I also believe that when he said behind closed doors, that 47 percent of the country considered themselves victims, who refuse personal responsibility – think about who he was talking about. Folks on Social Security who have worked all their lives; veterans who sacrifice for this country; students who are out there trying to hopefully advance their own dreams, but also this country’s dreams; Soldiers who are overseas, fighting for us right now; people who are working hard every day, paying payroll tax, gas taxes, but don’t make enough income.
I want to fight for them. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last four years.
This was just after Romney went all sincere-smarmy saying he cares for one hundred percent of Americans, saying that they’re all good people, really they are. Obama’s message was clear. Not so fast there, Slick!
And there was more:
In another change from the first debate, Obama brought up immigration and social issues often, regardless of the question, trying to tie Romney to some of his more conservative primary positions.
“His main strategy during the Republican primary was to say, we’re going to encourage self-deportation, making life so miserable on folks that they’ll leave,” he said. Romney countered that Obama had not passed a comprehensive immigration bill, despite promising in 2008 to make it a top priority.
That was a weak response and this didn’t help either:
Taking a question on equal pay, Obama noted that Romney had refused to offer up a clear position on whether he supports the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first bill the president signed after taking office.
Romney responded on a personal note, describing how he overrode his staff’s cabinet recommendations upon taking office in order to include more women in his cabinet.
“I went to a number of women’s groups and said, can you help us find folks? And I brought us whole binders full of women,” Romney said.
First was the engagement on Libya. This was supposed to be where Romney delivered the coup de grace. But Obama held his own and more. He overmatched Romney.
And then there was that moment. Not possible to rehearse or affect. The Romney team has gotten themselves into such a lather about this non-scandal of Obama not using the word ‘terrorism’ until days or weeks later that Romney couldn’t imagine that Obama could have said it on day one. Again, you can’t fake that.
Then came the “look” Obama is so good at:
Are you sure that’s what you mean? Is everyone else seeing this? Romney was downright giddy. But of course anybody who covers or watches the news knows that’s exactly what Obama said. And Candy Crowley had no choice but to correct Romney.
You can watch it here and Marshall sums it up:
It was a small humiliation but one that may stand in for many more untruths Romney has uttered and never been called on.
The second thing is of course Obama’s closing with that comment on the forty-seven percent thing Romney actually did say, and Marshall concludes with this:
It wasn’t a throwaway phrase when I said Romney did well. He was strong, especially at the beginning. He had a number of opportunities to pound his core messages of the disaster of the last four years and Obama’s failure to deliver. But over the course of the evening Romney slowly lost the battle to own the debate and the room. And the old awkward grin Romney began to reemerge.
But I’d conclude with this. No one controls an election. At best it’s a high stakes run over white water rapids where one candidate has more luck and skill than the other. You can’t know the effect of a debate or a good performance or a bad one. And certainly we know that campaigns like life are never fair.
What a candidate needs to do – what his or her supporters need them to do – is make the whole case, hit every point, not think of any great rejoinder three hours later when you’re brushing your teeth before bed. Obama had that night. And whatever it accomplishes for him and his campaign, his supporters desperately needed him to have that night.
Obama won this one, and Kevin Drum concurs:
Obama was way crisper than he was two weeks ago, and he adopted Joe Biden’s habit of frequently interrupting to accuse Romney of getting his facts wrong. On several occasions, Obama warned viewers that the Romney of the primaries was not the same Romney on display tonight, and that they should believe the old Romney, not the fake new one. I thought this worked pretty well, but then, I would, wouldn’t I?
For my money, the worst moment of the night for Romney came on Libya. He hauled out a stale conservative talking point about Obama not calling the Benghazi attack an act of terror, and when he confronted Obama about it, Obama just smiled and let him hang. Unexpectedly, this flustered Romney. Then, a few seconds later, Candy Crowley interrupted to confirm that Obama did, in fact, call it a terror attack the very next day. That really flustered Romney. This is the kind of segment that ends up getting repeated on cable news over and over and over.
There’s more, but it’s not quite as exciting:
Obama had a pretty good line early on about Romney’s economic views: “Governor Romney doesn’t have a five-point plan; he has a one-point plan.” That one point, of course, is looking out for the interests of the rich. I wish Obama had had a chance to hammer that a little harder, but it never really came up.
Romney has talked before about the idea of capping deductions rather than eliminating them, but this was by far the most public forum in which he’s mentioned it. For all practical purposes, I think that makes this the official Romney position: A 20% across-the-board rate cut paired with a $25,000 maximum for itemized deductions. The math on that comes nowhere close to working, though, and it’s pretty easy to prove it. I wonder how long it will be before the Romney campaign backpedals on this.
Obama did a good job of hitting Romney on his tax plan, taking it slowly and all but accusing him of deliberately trying to deceive middle-class voters. It’s hard to know if this made a dent, though. Too many numbers just puts people to sleep.
All in all, Drum thinks this should correct at least some of the damage in the polls. Unlike the Yankees, Obama’s not facing elimination just yet.
At David Frum’s site, the quite conservative Justin Green also actually concedes that Obama won:
Calling this debate for the President. Certainly a stronger performance on his end, although the bar wasn’t exactly high. Andrew Sullivan can finally quit panicking.
Andrew Sullivan does just that:
To my mind, Obama dominated Romney tonight in every single way: in substance, manner, style, and personal appeal. He came back like a lethal, but restrained predator. He was able to defend his own record, think swiftly on his feet, and his Benghazi answer was superb. He behaved like a president. He owned the presidency. And Romney? Well, he has no answers on the math question and was exposed. He was vulnerable on every social issue, especially immigration. And he had no real answer to the question of how he’d be different than George W Bush.
I’m excitable – but sometimes politics is about emotion as well as reason. And my view is that Obama halted Romney’s momentum in its tracks and his performance will bring women voters in particular flooding back. He’s just more persuasive. On watching with the sound off – apart from weird gaps in the CSPAN coverage – Obama did not grin like Biden; he smiled confidently, leaning forward. Within twenty minutes, Romney looked flush and a little schvitzy.
Game, set and match to Obama. He got it; he fought back; he gave us all more than ample reason to carry on the fight.
The New York Time’s Peter Baker notes that was the whole idea:
The strategy for Tuesday night was clear: undercut Mr. Romney’s character and credibility by portraying him as lying about his true positions on issues like taxes and abortion. Time and again, Mr. Obama questioned whether the man on stage with him was the same “severely conservative” candidate who tacked right in the Republican primaries.
At least Romney got a chance to say he wasn’t George Bush:
Mitt Romney laid out several areas where he said he would be different from the last Republican administration and George W. Bush in particular.
He mentioned trade, promising to “crack down on China’ and that “President Bush didn’t” do that.
Romney promised to get us to a balanced budget unlike Bush. Lastly, he promised to champion small business, saying his party has been too focused on big business in the past.
Obama turned that on him:
“The last point I want to make is this, you know, there are some things where Gov. Romney is different from George Bush,” Obama said. “You know, George Bush didn’t propose turning Medicare into a voucher.
“George Bush embraced comprehensive immigration reform. He didn’t call for ‘self-deportation.’ George Bush never suggested that we eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood. So there are differences between Gov. Romney and George Bush, but they’re not on economic policy.”
“In some ways he’s gone to a more extreme place when it comes to social policy. I think that’s a mistake. That’s not how we’re going to move our economy forward.”
That hurt – Romney isn’t even as good a man as George Bush. Maybe that was the home run.
The Economist’s Will Wilkinson sees what happened here:
On points, I’d score it a very close victory for Mr Obama. Mr Romney’s enumeration of Mr Obama’s failures and unmet promises toward the middle of the evening was powerful, and made up for some earlier, smaller lost exchanges. Rhetorically, however, it was a decisive victory, if not quite a drubbing, in Mr Obama’s favour. The turning point of the evening was clearly the exchange on Benghazi. The subject ought to have scored points for Mr Romney, but he straight up muffed it by putting forth a silly falsehood, while Mr Obama’s indignation seemed a display of admirable spine rather than the bit of face-saving bluff it was. After that point, Mr Romney seemed slightly off his game, which allowed Mr Obama easily to snag the campaign-saving win he so desperately needed.
Salon’s Alex Pareene says that was the pivotal moment:
Obama clearly prepared for his Libya response. Romney makes a dumb mistake: Obama says he spoke in the Rose Garden after the attack and called it an act of terror. Romney says “no you didn’t.” Obama says “get the transcript.” Crowley says “he did.” THE AUDIENCE APPLAUDS CROWLEY LIVE FACT-CHECKING ROMNEY. Like, twice. They applaud twice. Romney stutters through the rest of his response, and it doesn’t matter what he says: He just got fucking destroyed. By the audience, basically.
Daniel Larison wasn’t that surprised:
Romney has no foreign policy experience, and tonight everyone clearly saw that. He is superficially conversant with foreign policy issues, but hasn’t taken the time to learn enough about them to speak about them effectively or persuasively. Romney’s bad judgment and his lack of preparation on this front were on display, and it has probably become clear to a much wider audience that Romney lacks important qualifications for the Presidency.
That sets up the next debate in Florida, on foreign policy and nothing but foreign policy. Romney’s back is against the wall now, as Matthew Dickinson puts it here:
Obama parried as well as he could on the economic issues, but it’s generally not a winning area for him. But he was more aggressive and did a better job on keeping Romney on the defensive in terms of explaining himself. And when he could wrap himself in the commander-in-chief role, he was able to bring some passion and righteous indignation to the debate.
And Todd Goddard looks at the minor stuff:
Romney doesn’t do testy well. He made a big mistake trying to roll over the moderator. He got away with it in the first debate but he looked mean tonight. His obsession with the rules also came off as petty.
Romney did seem to spend an inordinate amount of time telling the moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley, to just shut the fuck up and let him speak, although he didn’t use those words. That should play well with low-self-esteem women who feel their husband’s abuse is probably justified and they deserve to get the crap beat out of them most every night. Maybe it was a deliberate strategy.
Still Obama won this one, or he didn’t. See the Princeton Election Consortium:
CBS undecided voters: Obama 37, Romney 30, Tie 33.
PPP Colorado voters: Obama 48, Romney 44, 58-36 among independents
CNN debate viewers: Obama 46, Romney 39
That’s not all that decisive, and Time’s Joe Klein explains the situation:
Most political debates are like this. There aren’t very many clean wins or losses. The candidates work on the audiences they’ve targeted – women for Obama; small business for Romney – and few minds are changed. The number of minds that are changeable at this point in this race is so miniscule that I can’t guess which candidate did better at influencing the truly undecided – which is why I can’t say who won. And I do think the bickering hurt both candidates, especially among women (and therefore may have hurt Obama more – although the President’s substantive answers on questions affecting women were much stronger than Romney’s).
Maybe so, but there’s Stan Greenberg with this:
I thought Obama made the determination from the first second to be forward-looking – laying out each element of his economic plan. He repeatedly said, this is what I want to accomplish in a second term. While he clearly sounded confident about what he had done, he didn’t say, give me a second term because of a job well done. He repeatedly said I would like another term to do this or that – on energy, education and others. I think voters will feel they heard him talking about the changes and progress he wants to achieve.
That was necessary and may turn the election around. On the other hand, should Obama lose, he can always coach the Yankees next year. Someone has to show them how to win the key game and turn a losing situation around, if only for a moment.