My Reaction to the 2012 Obama/Romney Debates (2/3)

Second Debate

This is where the most famous moment of this debate cycle comes in, and probably the most famous moment in any debate since “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” I’m talking about the “Please proceed, Governor” smack-down where the moderator called out Romney on a deliberate piece of misinformation he was trying to spew. The look of satisfaction on Obama’s face as he says the words is priceless. Like “wow, you’re really gonna go there huh? You really wanna go there? Ok. Here’s some rope, now hang yourself with it.”

ASIDE: Unfortunately, I believe this moderator got in trouble for confirming that Romney’s talking point was a bald faced lie, because that meant she was being “partisan.” Personally, I think there should be some system in place for calling out lies during the debates. Maybe not the moderator themselves stating the falsehoods, but perhaps annotations popping up onscreen with citations and sources when the candidates are trying to mislead us. Just another example of how the debate format ought to be reformed. In any case, I’m glad the joke moderator, Lehrer from the last debate is gone again.

Once again, I hate how they go through all these forced, unnecessary “thank yous” during the first question. The debates should just give them time to do so in the beginning or they both agree not to do it at all, or in their closing statements. It’s awkward and takes time away from the first answer in every debate, and at times it’s more noticeable than others, such as this one.

Romney gives a lame non-answer to the first question from a college graduate who can’t find a job. He keeps repeating “we need more jobs” and “I know what it takes” but doesn’t say how he’ll get more jobs or what exactly it takes. Just more empty conservative platitudes like the last debate (where “leave it to the states” was his rallying cry). Obama gives a direct answer about bringing manufacturing back…too bad he didn’t actually do that, and supported TPP which would have exported more manufacturing and blue collar jobs. Oops.

In a follow up, Romney also explains how bankruptcy can be a way to become stronger in economic situations. I just wish Romney would have said he’d allow student loans to be forgiven by bankruptcy. That would have been a solid, direct answer to Jeremy, and if Romney understands it’s a wise and sometimes necessary move, why not let the youngest and most vulnerable of us take advantage? This seems to be another example of two-tiered justice in this country. The rich can forgive their debts but not working class schmoes like me who went along with everyone telling them a college education was the answer to all life’s troubles and got saddled with paralyzing debt they’ll never pay back. Obama kinda attacks that in his own follow up, but again he hasn’t actually done anything to help us with this crucial problem. The theme of this debate cycle is: Romney gives a shitty answer, Obama talks a big talk but hasn’t actually done much in office that he promises.

They both harp on energy independence, but with different focuses. Where Romney talks about the Keystone pipeline plus more coal and oil Obama talks about investing in renewables. Obama points out Romney’s apparent flip-flopping on coal but doesn’t go into the Climate Change aspects of embracing dirty energy. Now, that may be the better strategy politically, since so many people don’t “believe” in climate change. But it’s sad that this is the case, and that there isn’t more of a forceful pushback on that kind of misinformation from our leaders. This topic of the debate leads to another failed attack by Romney on Obama. This segment is the most animated and openly hostile I’ve ever seen a town hall become. I hate the tactic Romney uses, trying to lock Obama into a one word answer when the situation is more complex than that, and then talking over him when he doesn’t play along. In the end they both look kinda silly, but Romney more so since he instigated this spat, and it’s a stupid point he was trying to force anyway (basically, he was trying to prove there’s less drilling on federal land under Obama.)

Along with giving shitty non-answers, Romney’s problem is he talks over the moderator when she’s trying to move the proceedings along. Normally I’d applaud that kind of behavior but this isn’t like the first debate where the moderator is Jim Lehrher and constantly interrupting them. This is a case where everyone has had their say and rebuttals and then Romney insists on talking more, just to reiterate the same points or lack Obama into a “gotcha!” yes or no response. As the moderator says the next question is to Romney, he talks over her obnoxiously for 2-3 minutes. It looks very chauvinistic and put-on “tough.” I can’t stand that type of machismo behavior.

The other big issue I have with Romney are these failed “aggressive” attacks on Obama on Libya and oil, where he tries to be a big no-nonsense tough guy but ends up looking like a goon. It’s a lot like Gore’s “what about the Dingell Norwood bill??!?!!?” gaffe. I think the lesson is…don’t do that kinda thing. Americans want someone assertive, yes. And you should be able to call out bullshit and capitalize on your opponent’s weaknesses as well. But when you go out of your way to more or less create bullshit (IE throw out misleading info/try to lock them into a “gotcha!” question) to blame your opponent for, and put on a show of being this big “alpha” male, more often than not it seems to backfire. It only kinda works with Trump because of backlash against the modern PC culture/politics-as-usual atmosphere and because he has literally no shame. Rather than come off looking like Reagan, who sort of did the same thing with the “there you go again” and put downs like that, Romney often comes off like Ross Perot in his debate with Al Gore on Larry King to me. That is, like a crotchety old grandpa who can’t be bothered to suppress his rage at the perceived indignity of even being on the same stage as the other guy. It’s not a good look. One of the most spot-on criticisms of Paul Ryan I’ve ever heard is “he’s what dumb people think smart people sound like.” I would say, after watching this debate, Romney is “what insecure people think ‘alpha males’ act like.”

The next topic is started by a young woman asking what they’d do about the gender wage gap, which has been thoroughly debunked a dozen times but it’s a great soundbite and thus the misinformation refuses to die. Like with climate change, I’d love it if the candidates called this out for the lie it is, but again that’s not the politically savvy thing to do. Obama does a great job talking about his single mom raising him and the first bill he ever signed about a similar issue, as well as fighting discrimination. It’s this topic where Romney’s infamous “binders full of women” gaffe comes from. Ironically, his answer, dealing with women who can’t work long hours because of raising children, is part of why the wage gap myth exists. The problem isn’t women getting paid less for the same work so much as women being in the position where they can’t work as many hours, and therefore don’t earn as much and have trouble climbing the corporate ladder. I actually think Romney’s answer about flexible work schedules and working from home is a great solution, and something I wish all companies would do. Not just to correct gender issues, but because in this day and age with the internet and the reality that people’s sleep schedules and other commitments are wildly different, we don’t all need to be on the same grueling, inefficient 9 to 5 schedule. [Now in a post COVID-19 world we see another reason jobs can and should be exported to the home.]

The next question, about how Romney would differentiate himself from Bush II, is probably the most crucial for him to answer and hit it out of the park. The legacy of George W Bush has left a permanent scar on the Republican party whether they acknowledge it or not, and I think as time goes on Bush will have a similar place in history as LBJ who broke the Old Left coalition with his own Presidency. (Only difference is, outside of Vietnam, LBJ was a good President.) Anyway, Romney completely bungles the moment from the get go “Oh that’s a great question but I think I was supposed to have the last word on the last question there” with both Obama and the moderator calling him out on that obvious nonsense. It’s worth noting that his answer to the previous question went a full 30~40 seconds over the time limit anyway. Again, I’m sensing strong parallels to Ross Perot on Larry King in 1996 constantly griping about time and looking like a complete asshole. So then he totally ruins his chance and disrespects the woman asking the new question, just to waste precious time clarifying he wouldn’t support contraceptives being covered for women by their employers—ironically tying himself to the very man he ought to be distancing himself from with this new question. He then goes on to reiterate his five point plan yet again, just this time saying “Bush didn’t” or “Bush wouldn’t” after each point. Very weak. Very, very weak. I think he almost certainly lost that poor woman’s vote with this embarrassing spectacle, and deservedly so.

With the next question as well, Romney completely bungles it with a woman who asked if immigrants, even illegals, will be dealt with as productive members of society. He basically goes point by point about how he’d send illegals back, wouldn’t grant amnesty or drivers licenses, etc. All with a big ignorant smile on his face as he almost certainly loses this woman’s vote as well. I will say though, at least Romney was honest in this answer. That was admirable if not smart. And while I personally would grant amnesty to those already here, I also think he’s right to talk about being tougher on illegal immigration.

Moving on, this leads to yet another instance of a misguided “assertive!” moment on Romney’s part where he continually asks “Mr. President, have you looked at your pension?!?! Mr Pent-eh-President, have you looked at your pension?” No exaggeration, he sounds like a whiny little boy repeating the same thing over and over again. Romney means to appear tough, not backing down until he gets an answer, but it’s just another moment where he ends up looking like a goofball. This leads to an irritating moment where the two of them, and the moderator, start talking over each other. Obama ends up looking suave and like the adult in the room by saying “Alright, we’re a little off topic here. I thought we were talking about immigration,” and moving on.

It’s the next segment when Benghazi is brought up, and the “please proceed, governor” moment occurs. I can see why the moderator was so willing to jump in and call out Romney’s lie. After the disrespectful way Romney has treated her and talked over her the whole proceeding hour, I’m sure she was happy to wipe that smug look off his face, and I don’t blame her one bit either. Still, watching the whole moment in context, it’s worth noting that she actually tries to give Romney some wiggle room to save face “but it did take two weeks for it to come out there was a riot—you are right about that.” The entire crowd cheers, presumably because Romney has been smug and obnoxious this entire debate and deserved to be knocked down a few pegs. Romney stammers out a lame response about some video or whatever, but you can tell by his demeanor that his confidence was shattered in that exchange. Normally I’d feel empathetic considering I hate public speaking and seeing someone else humiliated in public like that, but again considering the Romney’s demeanor up to this point, I have to say his comeuppance was well deserved.

It’s also great to see Obama call out Romney for having the press conference to score political points after Benghazi. There’s a famous photo of Romney leaving that stage with a big smile on his face; he didn’t give a rat’s ass about the people who died, he was just happy to have ammo against the President in the election. In fact, Obama’s answer here, and his rebuttal, is the perfect oratorical counterpoint to Romney’s behavior this entire debate. Where Romney has been fishing for little moments he could blow up into big shit storms to appear “tough” Obama played it smart and waited for one to naturally occur and chose the right time to make a strong stand. Where Romney’s forced “tough” moments backfired, Obama genuinely comes off as intimidating, uncompromising and authoritative in this moment. That’s how you play the game, folks. That’s how you pull it off. And in trying to one-up him, Romney walked himself into his biggest gaffe of the entire night and election, not to mention the second biggest smack-down in US debate history.

To give Romney some points back, I liked his next answer about shootings, where he says it’s a cultural issue and kids ought to be brought up better. I think a lot of the really hardcore anti-gun people miss that aspect of the problem entirely. If people were brought up better and felt more appreciated and less isolated or lonely I think it’d go a long way to stopping many of these mass shootings. Take away the guns and the dedicated ones will still make bombs, drive cars into crowds, use knives, or just commit suicide. We need to fix our society which leaves so many people feeling unloved and unwanted, and I suggest we start with curbing bullying in schools.

But, like his “let the states handle it” talking point last time, where Romney misses the point is when he says you shouldn’t make babies with someone unless you intend to marry them. Hey Mitt, pretty sure that only happens because your party makes it harder to access contraceptives, shames women who get abortions, and wants to make abortions illegal in the first place. Aren’t you the one who said your first act would be to defund Planned Parenthood for example? Really, really low to criticize a problem he and his kind have largely created in the first place. Again, this is part of my problem with the modern Republican party. They’re the party of feel good platitudes that don’t actually work in real life. States rights, save the fetus, work harder, protect small businesses all sound good…but when you consider the real world ramification or causes of what their policies actually are in practice, it’s disastrous. In this case, saving those babies by banning abortion leads to the loveless families of unwanted children, overworked single mothers, and general unhappiness he’s complaining about here. I really wish Obama had had the brains and/or the balls to call that out here, it would have been an epic smackdown if he had.

I have mixed feelings on Romney’s answer to the next question, regarding outsourcing, where he says he would label China a currency manipulator and pass tariffs against them. On the one hand, they are a currency manipulator. However, passing tariffs against them would almost certainly have bad consequences, like a trade war that would drastically hurt our economy. [Lo and behold, Trump took Romney’s advice and we’re now suffering for it.] One of the things preventing large scale conventional war between the powers in this day and age is the interconnected world of trade we enjoy. Messing that up would not be good for the economy or world peace. Obama talks about closing tax loopholes and doubling our exports. I think he’s full of it saying he’s only passing trade deals “where Americans get a good deal.” Romney’s rebuttal about “Government does not create jobs” is BS as well–apparently civil service jobs like the post office don’t exist, as one example. Again, it’s another stupid modern Republican platitude, the whole Reagan-esque “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem” paradigm.

I love Obama’s attack on Romney’s “47%” comment gaffe at the end. For some reason, I thought that came to light after the debates. Obama really does a great job of displaying why exactly that comment was so disgusting and deserved all the scorn it got and then some. Romney’s entire performance in this debate also displayed the exact dismissive, out of touch persona which “47%” exemplified. Romney talks over the female moderator as he pretends he’ll be good to women. Romney ignores questions he thinks are beneath him to get a dig in about the previous topic. Romney twists the facts and manipulates a tragedy to try to act outraged at Obama. And overall he’s running to be President with nothing but disdain for half the country. In many ways the whole debate was building towards this condemnation from Obama.

ASIDE: Anyone from the right wing who thinks I’m making too much of this soundbite–I also thought Hillary’s “half of Trump’s supporters are a basket of deplorables” coupled with her non-apology “I shouldn’t have said half” was similarly distasteful not to mention awful strategy. I’m sure you did too, and you must then hold your own man, Mitt, responsible for the same screw up. In fact, these two soundbites, plus the hyper-partisan gridlock in Congress the last ten odd years, and the extremely polarized opinions laymen hold on Obama and Trump are all indisputable evidence for how divided America has become. We have Presidential candidates with clear disdain for the other party’s perceived electorates–that’s neither healthy for our democracy, nor good for national morale, and it’s not sustainable. This has carried over to Trump openly supporting right-wing protestors and in some cases rioters and deliberately pursuing policies to punish the rest of us. We are a house divided against itself and sooner or later we are going to collapse in on ourselves if this isn’t resolved.

Anyway, normally I avoid picking a “winner” in my debate recaps. That’s not what these reactions are about; it’s about studying debate tactics as well as the candidates’ positions and how the parties have shifted over time. (To a degree, I also like imagining how I would answer if I were running for office as well.) And plus, it’s usually impossible to pick a winner anyway since your perceived winner depends on your previously held political opinion. Usually they both do more or less equally well even if one guy has a bad gaffe or the other guy a great zinger. But in this case, I’m very confident in saying Romney absolutely got his ass handed to him. No doubt about it. I don’t think any but the most partisan Republican would disagree.

The entire debate Romney tried to act like a big tough guy and time after time it backfired stupendously. He had a half a dozen gaffes just in this debate alone, and this is one of only two town halls I’ve watched which made me say “well, he just lost their vote” in response to a candidates’ answer to a question. (The other was 1992 with Bush’s answer about the debt/recession.) Obama made Romney look like a total chump. And this isn’t me shilling for Obama either, considering I’m very critical of his performance as President. I’ve made my intense dislike of Romney as a candidate and a person known before diving into these debates, so you may decide for yourself if I’m being too hard on him. I encourage you, watch this particular debate for yourself. I consider Romney’s performance here a perfect step by step tutorial on what NOT to do at a town hall.

1 Comment

  1. Another debate I didn’t bother watching because I hated both candidates so much I knew I would never vote for either one. Still cant imagine how or why anyone could support either of these two clowns. They were not even that funny. At lest watching the Trump clown show you got some laughs. For me when the public rejected Ron Paul, US politics hit rock bottom. For me the election of Trump seemed like a upturn after what I felt was the Obama disaster. You analysis almost made me care about this contest.

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