The good news for Obama coming out of the second debate is that he was definitely livelier. He did a good job of controlling his body language during Romney???s answers ??? no staring at his shoes, smiling, or God forbid, engaging in eye-rolling Bidenisms. He was occasionally rude and snippy, compared to Romney???s more presidential demeanor, but Obama was good enough to give the media their much-desired ???comeback??? hook.
But he needed a lot of help from moderator Candy Crowley of CNN, and he got it. She wasn???t too bad during the first half of the debate, but suddenly she was stepping in to save Obama from tough questions, cut Romney off, argue with him, and most remarkably, lie to protect Obama from Romney???s critique on Libya.
A thousand fact-checks were blazing across the Internet within minutes of the exchange, but for the record: Romney was right. Obama did not refer to the Benghazi consulate attack as an ???act of terror??? during his Rose Garden speech following the incident. A little overhalfway into that address, he said that ???no acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation??? as a general statement of principle, but it wasn???t even located in the same rhetorical zip code as his reference to the Benghazi attack.
By midnight, even Candy Crowley was admitting that Romney was ???right in the main, but he just chose the wrong word.??? That might seem like cold comfort to Romney after the moderator sided with Obama during the debate itself, but actually the exchange was destined to work against Obama, as it would inevitably have been fact-checked by the following morning. All throughout the evening, Romney had the air of a man laying down tracks that he knew would support the weight of tomorrow’s locomotive.
A great deal of the debate followed that pattern. Obama gave some answers that played well in the moment, but Romney???s responses are going to hold up much better during the coming days of analysis. And Obama???s high-pitched tone and occasional petulance did not compare favorably to Romney???s demeanor.
Still, it was odd to see Romney???s gambit on Libya focus so heavily on a single Obama Rose Garden speech, when he could have brought up so much other Administration behavior, especially Obama???s appearance on ???The View??? and U.N. ambassador Susan Rice???s now-infamous Sunday show tour, in which she peddled the patently false ???spontaneous video protest??? narrative. He could also have discussed Obama???s actual behavior on the night of September 11, 2012, which was very much at variance with the President???s fanciful boasts of commanding a crisis-response effort. In reality, he turned in early that night, and jetted immediately to Vegas for his fundraiser.
Romney left quite a few cards on the table. When the topic turned to income inequality for women, Romney didn???t mention that Obama pays his female employees much less than male staff. He didn???t address Obama???s continued whining about his personal tax rates, a subject Romney could have usefully educated the audience on. He scored points on Obama last time over his ???green energy??? failures, memorably remarking upon the incumbent President???s remarkable skill at picking losers, and might well have mentioned that today saw the bankruptcy of another Obama disaster, A123 Systems.
And perhaps Romney should have prepared a little ???pre-buttal??? of Obama???s swing at the ???47 percent??? video, since it was entirely predictable that Obama would cravenly save it for last, when he knew Romney would not be given an opportunity to respond. On the other hand, CNN???s audience reaction meter barely quivered when Obama dropped that attack. It would be encouraging to think that a serious-minded electorate expects more from this President than endless carping about something the challenger said during a discussion of political strategy in a four-month-old videotape.
On the other hand, Romney did slap down a card many wondered if he would play: Operation Fast and Furious. Crowley quickly intervened to protect Obama, but the damage was done. That’s going to draw some blood from Obama, not least by reviving interest in a story he would rather not see discussed… and a story which has proved to be of great interest to Hispanic voters.
Another way the Benghazi exchange served as a microcosm of the entire debate was the rather inconvenient fact of Obama???s actual record in office. Just as a few rhetorical jabs and a desperately needed save from the moderator can???t obscure what the Obama Administration has actually been doing about Libya, so Obama???s occasionally delirious talk about creating and saving zillions of jobs can???t erase three and a half years of double-digit unemployment. It was just awesome to hear President Solyndra complain about “sketchy deals.” In one particularly strange passage, Obama emphasized that he wants to reduce corporate taxes to stimulate growth just as much as Romney does. Really? Then why haven???t you done it, Mr. President?
Both candidates deposited some shavings from their stump speeches on the stage. The problem is that Obama???s stump speeches come from 2008. A lot of what he said might have sounded decent coming from a blank-slate challenger, but to put it mildly, it was unconvincing coming from the incumbent that gave America historic levels of debt, economic stagnation, and a credit downgrade.
Romney soared during the discussions of economic and energy policy ??? he pretty much took over the whole show during the energy discussion, although in the end Obama would end up with several more minutes on the clock. Obama???s rhetoric about an ???all of the above??? energy policy crumbled under an avalanche of hard Romney facts and figures. Again, Romney might have pounded Obama harder on the failure of all those ???green energy investments,??? but he presented his overall case for a more sensible energy policy in a way that will sound very appealing to swing voters. It???s tough for Obama to argue with those numbers on the gas pumps, especially with the Keystone XL decision chiseled into his record.
Oddly enough, one of the most illuminating exchanges came in response to the final ???puff??? question, which was along the general lines of ???what do you think most people misunderstand about you???? Both candidates unsurprisingly gave themselves wide latitude to answer this question with a mixture of campaign points and personal philosophy. Romney???s response was excellent??? while Obama???s was a complete betrayal of everything he obviously believes in.
It was astounding to hear the man who wrote ???you didn???t build that??? into the lexicon of American politics rhapsodize about economic freedom. It was amusing to hear the man who took Food Stamp Nation to record heights praise individual initiative. And it was downright surreal to hear the man who formerly inveighed against the ???leave you alone to die in the free-market tundra??? policies of Republicans try to sound like one. Obama???s closing statement was a gutless effort at calculated crowd-pleasing, and it cannot in any way be reconciled with his actual record in office.
On the issues most pressing to Americans, Romney won solid victories, while Obama dropped a number of whoppers that won???t survive the morning news. Romney looked like he belonged in the White House, and that???s enough to keep his momentum going. Obama???s talk about taking ???responsibility??? for Libya rang hollow, after weeks of avoiding that responsibility, and Hillary Clinton beating him to the point last night. It rang especially hollow when compared against his countless other attempts to evade responsibility for everything else. There is simply no way that an electorate interested in the concept of accountability will re-elect the architect of the past three and a half years.
It wasn???t a blowout, and Obama didn???t crash as hard as he did in Denver, but the media had better think twice about posting all those ???Obama comeback??? pieces they wrote yesterday. This was a solid Romney victory on the most important issues, and he gets another stab at Libya in the final debate.