That’s the good news -- not necessarily in a partisan sense -- from last night’s second presidential debate. Yes, the president’s spirited performance has buoyed his supporters after his listlessness at the first meeting two weeks ago. Maybe it can also help jolt the contest between Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney into more fruitful territory.
Unlikely, we realize. There is already an entire website, for example, devoted to one of Romney’s more memorable lines: “Binders Full of Women” (about which more later) is sponsored by a Democratic super-PAC. But if one of the laws of punditry is that the narrative must change, then why not a narrative about the issues?
There were certainly enough of them last night. Among the topics raised in the 11 questions from the 82 members of the audience were women’s role in the workforce; government funding for higher education; Romney’s tax plan; immigration; high gas prices; gun control; the recent violence in Libya; the role of China in the global economy; and last but not least, “the biggest misperception that the American people have about you as a man and a candidate.”
Debates are not boxing matches -- though Romney’s treatment of the president and the moderator, Candy Crowley of CNN, was occasionally too pugnacious -- but on our score card, Obama won pretty decisively on points. He tended to be more responsive than Romney, and his responses tended to be more substantive.
On guns, for example, a questioner wanted to know why the president hadn’t done more to reinstate the federal ban on assault weapons. Obama gave a semi-satisfying answer -- there is a need for better background checks, more vigorous enforcement, etc. -- but Romney’s was nonsensical, somehow morphing into a sermon about the need for two-parent families. It’s fair to say that Obama has done too little on gun control. For Romney’s party, however, that little is too much.
The question about how each candidate would help women in the workplace was also revealing, though for different reasons. Obama has some real achievements to cite here, namely the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which essentially gives women greater freedom to sue in court for pay discrimination. He then ran out the clock by rhapsodizing about his upbringing by his mother and grandmother. Romney’s answer, by contrast, was a conceptual and linguistic muddle. When he was governor of Massachusetts, he said, too few applicants for state posts were women. So he spoke to women’s groups, “and they brought us whole binders full of women.”
Leave aside the clumsy phrasing; people are constantly bringing governors (and presidents, for that matter) binders full of stuff. What Romney is essentially admitting -- though his party probably wouldn’t say so -- is that as governor he practiced affirmative action, and as a candidate he supports it.
These weren’t the only issues on which Romney’s performance suffered compared with the president’s. On Libya, he got his facts wrong (though not necessarily his premise), allowing Obama to lecture him about playing politics. Asked for details about his plan to cut taxes, the numbers of which just don’t add up, Romney argued by assertion: “Of course they add up,” he said, declining to elaborate. Next question?
Romney was at his best answering a question for the president: What had Obama done, this one-time Obama voter asked, to earn his vote this year? It’s not that Obama’s answer was bad. He got through most of his highlight reel before the required acknowledgment that “a lot of us” are still struggling. (Did you mean to include yourself, Mr. President?) It’s that Romney’s answer was specific -- unemployment is too high, the deficit is too big, entitlement spending is unsustainable -- and perfectly pitched. “The president wants to do well,” he said, almost mournfully. “I understand.”
Before last night’s debate, the dominant question of this campaign was purely political: Could Obama get his mojo back? He could and did. This kind of horse-race punditry will endure -- nay, thrive -- until Nov. 6. The great value of these debates is not so much that they have informed the public on the issues, though they often have, but that they have given voters a useful glimpse into how the candidates think.
Both men say they have been misperceived -- Romney as an uncaring rich guy, Obama as big-government type -- and both attribute the misperception to the efforts of his opponent. Yet they seem most comfortable talking about each other: Obama’s basic argument is that Romney can’t explain what he would do in the next four years. Romney’s is that Obama can’t defend what he did in the last four.
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