President Obama decided to show up for the debate this time, and the result was a crackling event. But if both candidates achieved their goals, that outcome was more important for Obama than it was for Mitt Romney.
Before their first debate two weeks ago, Obama had Romney on the defensive – hardly surprising after the Republican was caught dismissing half the country as leeches on society – but then gave away his advantage through a listless and unfocused debate performance in Denver. A repeat at Tuesday’s town hall event would have been disastrous to his hopes for re-election.
He didn’t repeat. Obama came to Long Island’s Hofstra University itching to make his case and to challenge Romney’s positions on everything from tax policy to energy and, perhaps most effectively, to security at the Benghazi diplomatic outpost. He was energized, clear and determined to take the fight to Romney and, with that, he kept his campaign out of the political intensive care unit.
But Romney was equally aggressive and, in that, achieved the goal of not ceding much, if any, of his new ground to Obama.
His worst moment came at Obama’s best, when the president forcefully rejected the claim that he was playing politics with the attack in Benghazi that killed a diplomat and three other Americans. “The suggestion that … anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own, governor, is offensive. That’s not what we do. That’s not what I do as president. That’s not what I do as commander in chief.”
It got worse for Romney when moderator Candy Crowley challenged his contention that it took Obama two weeks to label the attack as terrorism. She noted that, while Romney was correct that the White House initially clung to the description of the attack as the work of a mob, the president did say on the day after the attack that “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.”
Some say that wasn’t declarative enough, and referred to general acts of terror. That argument will go on. But it was good to see Crowley insert some facts into the debate. Journalists are not supposed to be ciphers.
The debate also featured the usual exaggerations, misstatements and deceptions that Americans have sadly come to expect.
Criticized for saying the government should let Detroit carmakers go bankrupt, Romney said Obama did the same, but he neglected to mention that the president’s actions also helped to save 1 million jobs that would otherwise have been lost because credit markets were frozen.
Regarding Arizona’s controversial immigration law, Obama accused Romney of calling it “a model for the nation.” But as Romney noted, he was speaking only of the “E-Verify” portion that checks the immigration status of new hires.
Coming Monday: the final presidential debate of 2012. After that, only two more weeks until voters have their say.