The debate was again very stimulating, and again I had trouble sleeping, more out of excitement this time, not because I was fighting against despair, as was the case after the first Obama – Romney confrontation.
This debate turned the election back to its substantial fundamentals. Obama’s September advantage has evaporated. It was perhaps inflated by the Democrats excellent convention performance and the Republican’s very poor one, and also by Romney’s 47% put down. Now there is a real contest between a centrist who is trying to move the center to the left (think Obamacare), and a professional candidate with unknown political orientation, clearly against Obama, though not clear what he is for.
Three competing approaches to governance, in fact, have been presented in the campaign. If Romney had won last night, he would likely win the election. Then there would be a contest between Romney, the Massachusetts moderate, and Romney, the severe conservative. There’s no telling what the result would be. But because Obama prevailed, he is still in there, and for three reasons I think that he will likely prevail. It’s a matter of authenticity, common sense and American identity.
Moderate Romney won the first debate because he performed well and because the President didn’t. That was reversed last night. The President was sharp, answering questions accurately and with authority, responding to Romney’s attacks precisely, most evident in the way he turned his greatest vulnerability, his administration’s handling of the attacks on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.
Romney tried to use the same technics to dominate and shape the discussion as he did the last time. But it was off putting. He insisted on talking when moderator Candy Crowley tried to keep him within the time limit, first with success, then failing. His attempt to bully a woman didn’t look good, as was noted on social media. And then there was the unfortunate turn of phrase “binders full of women,” a phrase that took off on the web immediately, revealing as it does a patronizing approach to woman and a view from on high of human beings as pages that fit into binders.
Romney was not nearly as weak as Obama was in the first debate. But Romney’s second performance reveals the unattractive technics he used successfully in his first performance, perhaps lessening the earlier success.
In the first debate, Romney pivoted. His move to the center thrilled Republican moderates and operatives, apparently making him attractive to independents and undecided voters. It confused Obama, who responded poorly. But prepared for this now, Obama effectively responded and Romney now wasn’t able to cogently account for his proposals or for himself.
Romney was caught between his supply side fantasies of cutting taxes on the “job creators” to stimulate economic growth, and a promise that he wouldn’t favor the rich, when job creators = rich. He declared that his move to cut tax rates and radically increase military spending will be paid for by closing unspecified loopholes, but wouldn’t or couldn’t provide evidence. Obama was particularly sharp in criticizing this.
“Now, Governor Romney was a very successful investor. If somebody came to you, Governor, with a plan that said, here, I want to spend $7 or $8 trillion, and then we’re going to pay for it, but we can’t tell you until maybe after the election how we’re going to do it, you wouldn’t take such a sketchy deal and neither should you, the American people, because the math doesn’t add up.”
Romney used an authoritative tone to trump such contradictions in the first debate. It didn’t work last night. And there was a big difference between his weak performance and Obama’s. Obama’s identity, his character, like it or not, is consistent. Romney’s isn’t. After campaigning for President for six years, it is still not clear whether he is severely conservative Romney or moderate Mitt. Strong performance can hide this, but the weak performance raised serious doubts.
Romney tests common sense both in the specifics of his major policy ideas and in presentation of self. His strongest move in the debate was to use every bad statistic about the economy, sometimes questionably cooked, and claim it is the fault of Barack Obama, from employment statistics to the price of gasoline. Without recognizing the larger historical and global context of hard times, it is all Obama’s fault. Some of this seems pretty compelling. It is his best argument, but I have my doubts that it can work when the alternatives Romney proposes so obviously most directly benefit the most privileged and so closely resemble the policies of George W. Bush. The Governor’s inability to distinguish himself from Bush and his policies, I think, was a notable low point in Romney’s performance
Women played a special role in this debate. There was a stark contrast in the way that Romney spoke about and to woman and the way that the President spoke: women in binders versus “women as heads of households,” as the President answered the question of equal pay for equal work. What was remarkable about the women in binders gaffe, is that it revealed a candidate who seems to be removed from America as it is and as it is becoming: less white, Protestant, Anglo, heterosexual, socially equal and mobile, and educated, than Romney and the Republicans imagine, with more suffering that demands government action. Obama and the Democrats speak to the America that is becoming, while the Republicans are in denial.
I realize this may be the most politically momentous night of my life. The differences between Romney’s and Obama’s approaches to America and its problems are stark and the choice was clearly revealed. Obama won the contest, in my judgment and according to the early polls. As a partisan, I am very pleased. As a sociologist of political culture, I am intrigued.
In my next post, I will further consider the debate and focus on the positive vision that Obama expressed. I heard many commentators last night declare that the President has still not presented his plans for a second term. I don’t think this is accurate and will explain.