Mitt Romney's Peevish, Prickly Debate Flop

Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama at Hofstra University during their debate on October 16 Photograph by Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

I thought Mitt Romney’s second debate was nearly as bad as Barack Obama’s first debate. Two weeks ago, Obama seemed to have no awareness of what he was doing wrong, and he spent the evening staring at the lectern and searching for something to say. Romney seemed to suffer from a similar malady Tuesday night, imagining himself as winningly assertive while coming across as peevish, over-aggressive, and fussily obsessing over the rules like Tracy Flick in Election. In the town hall setting, Romney’s constant interruptions of the moderator, Candy Crowley, and the president, seemed rude in a way they did not when the two candidates stood together onstage.

Obama, after a nervous start, generally appeared calm and poised; temperamentally, he’s much better suited to this format. But his greatest strength was that he showed up prepared. Romney relied heavily on brute assertion. Obama’s answers took the form of his citing an earlier promise he made, followed by facts about what he’d done to meet it. Asked by an audience member how he would improve middle-class fortunes, Obama replied that he had promised to cut taxes for the middle class and had done so by $3,600 per family, and he had promised to help small businesses and then cut taxes for them on 18 occasions.

Often these answers segued into broader philosophical differences with Romney. Obama’s answer on the middle class, for instance, culminated with an explanation as to why it is important to include new revenue sources along with tax cuts—a point Romney disagrees with, but that registers highly with independent voters. Obama repeated this on issues ranging from women’s rights, equal pay, and immigration to the foundations of the social contract. It helped, too, that Obama injected some necessary (though still cutting) humor when comparing his own meager pension to Romney’s fortune.

Romney, too, came equipped with plenty of facts. But in his answers, he seemed to be mentally shuffling through his talking points, often without managing to pull the right one. The question about women’s rights in the workplace drew a wandering response about the unemployment rate and job prospects for college graduates. What he did say on the topic was a bit misleading. Whatever efforts Romney made to hire women as Massachusetts governor, the Boston Globe’s live fact-check noted during the debate that none were partners during Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital.

When Romney did draw questions that offered opportunities to score big points, he often whiffed—none bigger than the question about the president’s handling of Libya. Romney erroneously claimed that Obama had refused to call the assault on the U.S. embassy a terror attack until 14 days after it occurred, when in fact Obama did so the very next day. Crowley’s correction and admonishment of Romney—and the crowd’s applause—were devastating. Romney slunk back to his stool, looking utterly defeated.

Beyond the candidates’ stark differences in temperament, I thought that many of the positions Romney was forced (or chose) to take in the GOP primaries hurt him badly in Tuesday’s debate. On immigration reform and abortion, Obama managed to wrap Romney’s more strident positions of last spring (“self-deport,” for instance) around his neck in a way that made Romney, already visibly uncomfortable, look craven. That impression was deepened by Romney’s lawyerly explanations of what he had and had not stood for, and what he stands for now. He didn’t offer much that would persuade someone not yet comfortable with his candidacy, and he probably fostered doubts in a number of people who had warmed to him after the last debate.

Snap assessments of debate performances are notoriously tricky things. Maybe one of the candidates made a huge factual error that won’t be understood until later. Maybe both did. Maybe I’m incapable of viewing these events from a perspective other than that of a political reporter who’s been steeped in this stuff for 18 months. So caveat emptor.

That said, I’d be shocked if most independent and loosely affiliated voters in battleground states didn’t come away from this debate impressed and reassured by the president—and newly skeptical (re-skeptical?) of Mitt Romney.

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