The stakes were high tonight. On the cable news talkie shows, the tension was thick as warm springs fog. National polls suggest the race hangs by a thread. Both men were under enormous pressure. But when they entered the hall at Hofstra University in New York, I thought Obama looked more at ease. Romney seemed stiff. To be on that stage at all, you'd have to have nerves of steel, but you could see the tension in each man's face and in the set of his shoulders.
It was a fascinating debate. Both men were aggressive and at the top of their game. Romney's behavior, interrupting the President and moderator Candy Crowley, attempting to control the flow of the debate (as he did so successfully in the first debate), bordered on plain rudeness. But in the end, Obama won not because he is a better orator (although he is) but because Romney has nothing to offer as an alternative.
After watching the debate, my opinion of Candy Crowley improved a thousandfold. You've got to be tough to stand up to two alpha males like those, and she did it. She wouldn't let either man bully her. Impressive.
Throughout the debate and almost without regard to the question being asked, Romney continued to fall back on the same single-note refrain: Lower tax rates to help businesses, which will then hire more people. When more people have jobs, other problems like spiking college tuition costs or unequal pay for women will, through the natural course of events, take care of themselves. Well, call it what you want, but it still adds up to the same thing: Trickle-down economics.
The most laughable moment for me came when Romney attempted to explain how his tax plan will benefit middle-income earners. Quoth he:
"But your rate comes down and the burden also comes down on you for one more reason, and that is every middle-income taxpayer no longer will pay any tax on interest, dividends or capital gains. No tax on your savings. That makes life a lot easier."
I swear, I laughed out loud when I heard that remark. I mean, who the f*ck earns capital gains? (Answer: Romney. And lots of 'em.)
Another slap-your-forehead moment came when Romney, attempting to reassure women that he gives a sh*t about them, related the anecdote about filling his cabinet as Governor of Massachusetts.
"I went to a number of women's groups and said, 'Can you help us find folks,' and they brought us whole binders full of women."
This remark has spawned a lot of jeering on the internet and for good reason. But I was somewhat sympathetic when he followed with this:
"And - and so we - we took a concerted effort to go out and find women..."
That line describes the behavior of myself and my fraternity brothers every weekend throughout my college days.
Throughout the debate, the President called out Romney's Tea Party werewolf. The President pressed his advantage with women by bringing up the Lily Ledbetter bill and Romney's lack of support for it and by pointing out that Romney called for an end to Planned Parenthood funding. The President pressed his advantage with Latinos by pointing out that one of Romney's top advisors is the author of the odious Arizona "Papers, please" legislation. Latinos no les gusta Romney.
Soon thereafter, came this (abridged) exchange on Libya:
Obama: The day after the attack, governor, I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people in the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened. That this was an act of terror and I also said that we're going to hunt down those who committed this crime.
Romney: I think interesting the president just said something which - which is that on the day after the attack he went into the Rose Garden and said that this was an act of terror.
Obama: That's what I said.
Romney: I want to make sure we get that for the record because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.
Obama: Get the transcript.
Crowley: He did in fact, sir.
Egg on face, Mitt. You could see by the way Romney pounced that he was going in for the kill. But it flopped. Candy Crowley did an on-the-spot fact check and nailed Romney. Impressive job, Candy.
Romney also got burned when Crowley pointed out that, as governor of Massachusetts, Romney signed an assault weapons ban. You can imagine that revelation gave a few Tea Parties some acid reflux.
When a question came up about outsourcing, Romney tap danced with a cryptic explanation of currency policy. But the question was about outsourcing, Mitt! A weak response made all the weaker when Obama pointed out that media reports called Romney's businesses "pioneers of outsourcing."
But the knock-out punch came with the last question of the evening. "What do you believe is the biggest misperception that the American people have about you as a man and a candidate? Using specific examples, can you take this opportunity to debunk that misperception and set us straight?"
Romney went first: "I care about 100 percent of the American people. I want 100 percent of the American people to have a bright and prosperous future. I care about our kids. I understand what it takes to make a bright and prosperous future for America again. I spent my life in the private sector, not in government. I'm a guy who wants to help with the experience I have, the American people."
First of all, Romney is hardly credible when he claims to have empathy for the lower classes. Nothing in his governance, personality, or lifestyle lend any credence to that idea. And he just doesn't have the charisma to pull off an "I feel your pain" argument. But his biggest mistake was mentioning the "100 percent." You can be sure that he was prepped before the debate to have a response if the President mentioned Romney's disastrous "47 percent" remarks. But because Romney went first, he teed the President up for a big finish.
And I quote: "I believe Governor Romney is a good man. Loves his family, cares about his faith. But I also believe that when he said behind closed doors that 47 percent of the country considered themselves victims who refuse personal responsibility, think about who he was talking about. Folks on Social Security who've worked all their lives. Veterans who've sacrificed for this country. Students who are out there trying to hopefully advance their own dreams, but also this country's dreams. Soldiers who are overseas fighting for us right now. People who are working hard every day, paying payroll tax, gas taxes, but don't make enough income.
And I want to fight for them. That's what I've been doing for the last four years. Because if they succeed, I believe the country succeeds.
When my grandfather fought in World War II and he came back and he got a G.I. Bill and that allowed him to go to college, that wasn't a handout. That was something that advanced the entire country. And I want to make sure that the next generation has those same opportunities. That's why I'm asking for your vote and that's why I'm asking for another four years."
Big Obama win. On to November!