Presidential debate Round 2: Fantastic theater but not decisive politics
President Obama’s performance in Tuesday’s second presidential debate was dramatically better than his outing in the first one earlier this month. Unfortunately for Democrats, Obama’s Republican rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, didn’t crumble in the face of the newly energized and forceful president. Instead, the debate at Hofstra University in New York played more like a brutal exchange of punches between heavyweights, ending with both men battered but standing. Intense throughout, even riveting at times, it was fantastic theater -- but not decisive politics.
Unlike his reserved, accommodating approach in the first debate, Obama spent much of the night attacking Romney’s record and proposals, forcing his rival to spend more time defending himself and less time dissecting Obama’s presidency. Obama was also much sharper and quicker when responding to Romney’s attacks.
The more moderate-sounding Romney from the first debate was again on display, as he pledged his support for college grants and loan programs, clean energy, green cards for high-skilled immigrants and even contraceptive coverage for female employees. But he veered into new, socially conservative territory when he argued that one way to reduce gun violence is to decrease the number of out-of-wedlock births.
Romney was effective again when faulting Obama’s handling of the economy and laying out the small-government philosophy behind his economic plan. But he stumbled when pressed to show how the numbers add up on his plan to cut tax rates by 20% without raising the deficit, declaring, “Of course they add up!” He might as well have said, “Trust me!”
Romney also fumbled his criticism of how the administration responded to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. That should have been debate gold for Romney, but he came across as opportunistic, petty and misinformed about what Obama said the morning after the attack. In fact, after Romney all but accused Obama of lying about his remarks, moderator Candy Crowley of CNN backed up Obama’s version of events -- a twist that will certainly have fact-checkers parsing the transcript.
For his part, Obama broke no new ground in critiquing Romney’s tax plan, nor did he present much of a plan for the next four years. He did, however, articulate more clearly why his approach to the economy would help the country (because by raising taxes on high-income Americans, Washington could afford to keep investing in the physical and human resources needed to compete in a global economy). And as noted above, he gave voters more reasons than before to doubt Romney.
The policy discussions often devolved into “yes it would/no it wouldn’t” kinds of exchanges, and at times the debate cried out for a mediator instead of a moderator. So it isn’t likely to change minds on that front. The main effect will probably be to reassure Obama supporters that their candidate is engaged and capable of holding his own against Romney, while convincing Romney supporters that their candidate can take whatever Obama dishes out.
On to Round 3.
Follow Jon Healey on Twitter @jcahealey
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