Not a Pretty Night for Romney -- or Obama
This is part of a continuing dialogue between Margaret Carlson and Ramesh Ponnuru about the 2012 campaign.
Ramesh, you didn't go far enough. I agree that the president "stopped the bleeding," which means he won the night. But at what cost? It wasn't pretty.
Obama had a second chance to make a first-debate impression, and he did. Romney should have known you don't get to surprise someone twice. The New Romney unveiled in the first debate -- crisp, confident, composed and gracefully shape- shifting -- was the Old Romney by last night. Obama was ready.
But they both looked terrible in the process. Obama should never beg for more time. He's the president. This is when a five-second stare -- focus-group-tested by parents -- would have allowed him to keep his dignity and alerted moderator Candy Crowley he was keeping score.
But the president looked like Mister Rogers next to Romney, who lacks modulation once he gets going. As a result, Crowley gave in to him more often, but this tactic won Romney no favors with women -- nor did his claim to be looking at "binders full of women" for cabinet posts in Massachusetts or his saying women should be allowed to use contraceptives (thanks, Mitt!) but not whether they should be covered by insurance plans women pay premiums for.
Even in that unfortunate format -- whoever thought candidates circling each other like wrestlers was presidential? -- the person seeking to be president has to show some deference to the person who is. The negotiators for the rules governing the town hall must have yearned for a repeat of dramas past -- when George W. Bush nodded his head curtly as Al Gore breathed down his neck -- or why would they have encouraged any stage-roaming at all? It's entertaining, but so were the events in the Roman Coliseum.
All that striding hurt Romney the most. He all but made a $10,000 bet he was right about Obama's Rose Garden speech right after the attack on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya -- and got petulant when the president calmly said, "Read the transcript." Then came the most satisfying moment of the night, when Crowley called it -- Obama was right, if only on the narrow point that yes, he did say "acts of terror" in his address to the country after the ambassador was killed.
In that moment is the secret to making debates more about substance than style. My modest proposal is to find a respected group -- as the commission has found Gallup -- to perform instant fact-checking. If families can do it during arguments at Thanksgiving dinner with an iPhone, why can't the Commission on Presidential Debates?
Yes, I know there are media organizations and websites that fact-check the debates as they happen. But this would be official: The actual facts could scroll along the bottom of the screen in real time. Or the moderator could do as Crowley did. Did anyone know in real time whether Romney called the stringent anti-immigrant legislation out of Arizona a "model for the nation"? Was Romney for an assault weapons ban before he was against it (or vice versa)?
There are no more inquiring minds than those which are watching a debate to assess the candidates who want to lead them. They shouldn't have to wait until the next day.
Read more breaking commentary from Bloomberg View at the Ticker.