The Second Presidential Debate

Obama won.  And he won in a way that makes his re-election far more likely than it was a week ago.

It was a nasty debate, honestly.  Both men interrupted each other and the moderator repeatedly.  It tended to go like this: the candidate would be asked a question by an audience member.  The candidate’d go up to the questioner, try to get his/her name right, look right at him/her.  Faking empathy.  He’d answer something sort of tangential to the question he’d been asked.  Then the other candidate would attack.  A donnybrook would ensue, which Candy Crowley would, with considerable difficulty, break up.  Pretty much every question.

Crowley did really well, I thought; not Martha Raddatz well, but really well.  But I loved the questions the audience asked. On Snuffleupagus this week, he had a panel talking about debates generally, and a couple of his Washington insiders said they hated the town hall format, that only Beltway insiders asked the really good, tough questions.  In other words, Beltway insiders ask questions Beltway insiders like.  Give me the public any time.

The candidates both want to seem on top of the issues, so they’d both answer questions with lots of statistics and numbers, which then the other guy would dispute.  Which is precisely why the debate’s most awkward moment may prove pretty devastating to the Romney campaign.

It came on a question about Libya, and the terrorist attack that killed Chris Stevens and three other members of his staff.  The Obama administration has mishandled this issue pretty badly, honestly, with conflicting stories about what actually happened, especially regarding why we didn’t have more security at our diplomatic mission in Benghazi.  Ordinarily, US embassies and missions don’t have Marines on-site.  Security is the responsibility of the host countries.  But Libya’s been a country for, like, ten minutes, and it probably would have been a good idea, in retrospect, to provide that mission with a Marine detachment.  Both Secretary Clinton and President Obama have essentially admitted as much, though it’s taken awhile to get to that point.  What I think happened is that they had conflicting intelligence, and it took some time to sort out the reports they’d received. Anyway, Benghazi mission security has been a favorite right wing talking point for a month now, and so Governor Romney stuck his foot in it; said it had taken the President two weeks to characterize the event as a ‘terrorist attack.’  President Obama insisted that he had called it a terrorist attack the day after it happened.  Romney said he hadn’t; the President said ‘check the transcript’.  And Candy Crowley then jumped in, and said, ‘he did say it, Governor Romney.  He’s right.’  (I’m paraphrasing).

Here’s why that’s damaging to Romney.  The entire debate was filled with these kinds of disputes: ‘you said, I did not either, yes you did, no I didn’t!’  Both guys insisting the other guy’s pants are the ones on fire.  But the moderator has tremendous authority in that setting.  I think most viewers liked the job Crowley did.  They like that she kept trying to get the guys to shut up so more audience questioners could get their questions in.  She was standing up for the public.  When she said to Romney, with that earned reportorial authority, ‘the President’s right, you’re wrong,’ it called into question all the other assertions made by Romney up to then.  Most folks don’t really have the time or interest to sort out all the claims and counter-claims and figure out who is telling the truth. Suddenly, there it was: truth.  I think it’s quite possible that this could prove really damaging to his chances. Having lied–well, misrepresented–it’s possible he may now look like a liar.

The twitter-sphere loved Romney’s misstatement about having ‘binders full of women’ he looked at when staffing his administration in Massachusetts.  But we all knew what he was talking about.  It was a tough question for Romney, frankly, because Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter act prohibiting workplace discrimination, and because Obama could connect with the question personally, through the life experiences of his Mom and Grandma, in ways Romney couldn’t.  Romney’s hiring record for women at Bain Capital was a poor one, but he did hire quite a few of the ‘binders full of women’ in Massachusetts, after having been pressured to do so by women’s groups.  His comment, though awkwardly phrased, was his attempt to make the best of a bad question for him.  It could have been worse; Lilly Ledbetter is very popular, and he opposed it.  But my guess is that Obama wasn’t anticipating a Lilly Ledbetter question, and wasn’t sure whether or not Romney had taken a position on it, and so didn’t call him on it. Honestly, I thought Romney got lucky; the focus is now on his misuse of language, not on his unpopular stance on a very popular policy.

But boy, the debates are strangely unreal.  One great example is the question about gas prices.  In fact, the President of the United States can do very little about the price of gasoline.  Romney used the question to attack Obama for not allowing more drilling on public lands.  Nice swivel, but in fact, domestic drilling is irrelevant to gas prices too. Gas is a fungible, internationally priced commodity.  If American companies drill for oil domestically, they sell it internationally, where it increases supply by, oh, some tiny amount.  Thereby reducing gas prices by an equally laughably tiny amount.  The only way the President could actually lower gas prices would be, I don’t know, by nationalizing oil and gas, which nobody is talking about doing, and which Mitt Romney, of all people, pro-business conservative Mitt Romney absolutely would never do. Exxon doesn’t drill more because it’s not profitable for them to drill more, and Exxon is, without drilling much, exceptionally profitable.

What does drive up gas prices is political instability in oil-producing regions, which sucks because, in a lot of ways, ‘politically unstable’  and ‘oil producing nations’ are synonymous.  So the belligerent sabre-rattling by the Romney folks on Iran has probably driven up gas prices more than any amount of drilling could fix.  The recent re-election of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela didn’t help.

It was interesting to me that in a debate where the questions came from the general public, there wasn’t a single question about Iran.  That surprised me, because Romney has been so critical of the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts there. Could be more a Beltway obsession than something most folks care about. But would Mitt Romney really try to invade Iran?  It’s hard to imagine.  A far more likely scenario would be an Israeli air attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.  Such an attack would be (using diplomatic language here), ‘inadvisable.’  De-stabilizing.  The alternative is diplomacy and international sanctions. Criticize each other all you want; that’s what both guys are going to do, because that’s the one arrow in the American quiver.

The other moment that really struck me in the debate came when Romney, unprompted, interrupted the President by shouting “government doesn’t create jobs.”  I thought that was really interesting; it felt genuine.  I think that’s what Mitt Romney thinks; I think he believes that government can’t create jobs.  But that belief puts him in an interesting bind.

Okay, Mitt Romney is running for President; for ‘Head of the Executive Branch of government.’  He, correctly, identifies unemployment as the biggest economic problem in our country.  But he doesn’t believe government can create jobs.  What does he propose?  To reduce taxes and regulations, to get government out of the way of private sector job creation.  But he can’t say that in a debate.  He can’t say, for example, “I plan to create 8 million jobs, by doing absolutely nothing.”  He can’t say “this job, which needs doing, is one the President is powerless to accomplish.”  Explaining his entire rationale is complicated, and debates are about sound bites, not complicated explanations.

Worst of all, though, debates are about maintaining a certain false belief; the myth of the magical President.  Both candidates have to sustain the fiction that they, as President, can do, well, all sorts of things Presidents can’t do. But if they said that, if they were honest with us and said ‘yeah, gas prices are tough.  Sorry, but that’s not something the President can do anything about,’ well, heck, he’d just get killed.  He’d ‘seem weak,’ which is the one thing a President can’t ever ever appear to be.

So Romney obfuscates.  All this nonsense about a ‘five point plan,’ and ‘revenue neutral tax cuts,’ which basically no one believes.  His ‘five point plan’ isn’t even a plan; it’s more a wish list. “I’ll create 8 million jobs.”  Sure, and I’d love a pony for Christmas.

That’s not to say that Romney’s plans can’t work.  I don’t believe in them, and I think his tax cut is a disaster and I don’t believe for a second that it would be revenue neutral, but then, I’m a liberal; of course I don’t believe in his policy proposals.  It’s just that I could be wrong.  If he’s elected, I’ll pray that I am wrong.

I’m not, though.

Obama, however, believes that government can create jobs.  He’s advised by neo-Keynesians, like Valerie Jarrett.  His stimulus did work essentially as Paul Krugman predicted–too small to fix the problem, but big enough to put a floor under our economic collapse.  He’s got a jobs bill (another stimulative measure) stalled in committee in Congress.  That’s all easier to talk about in a debate.

I loved Obama defending Planned Parenthood so powerfully.  Loved his refutation of that conservative myth that Planned Parenthood=abortion factory.  I loved Obama’s use of the 47% thing; nicely timed for just the right dagger-between the ribs effect.

Best moment of the night, for me, however, was Republican spinner George Pataki.  Former governor of New York.  Lawrence O’Donnell pressed him to name a single loophole he would favor closing.  Pataki said, sure: that while the home interest deduction should stay, he would favor capping it.  O’Donnell pointed out that it’s already capped.  This was news to Pataki, and he asked, ‘at what home value?’  O’Donnell said, “1.1 million.”  “Oh,” says Pataki, “that’s too high.  It should be 600,000.”

So there we have it.  The first specific loophole the Romney tax plan would close.  He’d lower the cap on home mortgage deductions from 1.1 to 600 thousand.  And that’s how he’ll pay for a 4.8 trillion dollar tax cut.  I laughed out loud.  We really are in Never Never land, aren’t we?



6 thoughts on “The Second Presidential Debate

  1. soldsign

    I thought the best moment of the O’Donnell-Pataki interview was when O’Donnell – after enduring a tirade from Pataki about how Obama is responsible for high gas prices – pointed out that prices were as high at one point during the Bush admin as they are now. ” Was that Bush’s fault?” he asked Pataki. “No, of course not” Pataki answered. O’Donnell sat back in his chair, with a smirk on his face, and said “Oh. Ok.” I love it when one is hoisted on his own petard!!

  2. Marvin Payne

    Hi Eric. Enjoyed your words, although I’m “a conservative.” I thought the president’s best moment was when he called Romney’s attack on his Libya response “offensive.” I thought I saw a flash of honest self and it pleased me. I saw the same flash when Romney said he believes in God. Both men had great opportunities to shut up after having said beautiful things, and didn’t take them.

  3. Jeb Branin

    The saber rattling with Iran is fascinating. Iran is one of the most technologically advanced nations in that part of the world and home to some of the world’s top scientists. We are (understandably) hell bent on keeping them from realizing utilization of what is essentially 65-year-old weapons technology? I don’t see it happening. Short of war. But I would suggest if nuclear deterrence worked for the USSR it’ll work for Iran, especially considering they are a much easier target then the Soviets ever were.

  4. Anonymous

    Quick thing Eric- in your post you mention when the moderator said Obama was right in the Libya thing. She actually said they were both right- Obama did use the word ‘terror’ the day after, but the White House didn’t call it a terrorist attack for 2 weeks. There was one smattering of applause when she said Obama was right, then another when she said Romney was also right. Not nearly as damaging to Romney as you make it out to be, and most of the polls I’ve seen mentioned on CNN said Romney won, as much as anyone can ‘win’ a presidential debate.

  5. LauraH

    I thought Obama won. By a small margin. I thought Romney’s ending comments about how he believed in God seemed like the most sincere thing I’ve heard him say on the campaign trail. I thought Obama got some good points in. All in all I’m tired of them both though, and the overall nastiness that has just gone on too long.

    Mostly I’m tired of Romney saying he’s going to create 12 million jobs. I wonder what he’ll do the second month he’s president? I think maybe he really believes he can do it, but I don’t.


Leave a Reply