If the first presidential debate was a substantive back-and-forth discussion between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama over differences on domestic policy, the second debate was a political knife fight. Both men used every question, every possible opportunity to attack the other, damn the consequences or the truth. They morphed from candidates competing for the highest office in the land into street fighters, mugging reality at every turn. It was a rumble.
For the political class, this was pure entertainment – political theatre at its very best, like those cable news smack-downs that regularly air on MSNBC and Fox News. Pundits on both sides were amused, elated even. It was everything they ever wanted out of this election season and then some.
For everyone else, it was an awkwardly nasty affair and a reminder of why they can’t wait for this bloody thing to be over.
Sure, even I’ll admit I laughed out loud at Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” or Barack Obama referring to terrorists as “folks”. But by the end of the night, I too was sick of attack after endless attack.
As far as who won and who lost, it was a draw. The President came off as feisty and alive, but that’s because of his zombie-like demeanor in the last debate. Perhaps his campaign’s free fall in the polls jolted him into action or maybe he was inspired by Uncle Joe’s impassioned, yet wacky debate performance against Paul Ryan last week. Whatever it was, Mr. Obama is awake again and he’s not going to let anyone take the presidency away from him, especially not Willard Mitt Romney. Nobody puts Barack in a corner.
Though Governor Romney was on the defensive for most of the evening, the momentum of the election is still in his favor, thanks in large part to his decisive victory in the first debate. Most national polls give him an overall edge, even in many swing states, and the Obama campaign’s once giant lead among women has totally collapsed. A CBS poll released after the second debate gives Obama a slight advantage on who “won” (37% Obama, 33% Tie, 30% Romney), but Romney trounces him 65% to 34% on the economy question, still the single most important issue in this election.
This shouldn’t be surprising: every time the President launched an attack over Bain Capital or Big Bird, Romney would bring the discussion back to the Obama administration’s weak handling of the economy. Team Obama is going to need to think of something else, and fast.
Governor Romney’s performance was not without its faults. His continued shedding of the “severely conservative” skin he adopted during the Republican primaries is far from becoming and raises serious questions about the sincerity of some of his proposals. His pivots to the center on Pell Grants and immigration reform were painful to watch.
The governor’s weakest moment, however, was getting outflanked by Mr. Obama on whether or not the President referred to the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya as “acts of terror” (he did). Romney was still right about the larger cover-up by the Obama administration, as Ms. Crowley pointed out after the debate, but it gave Barack Obama an opportunity to appear Presidential, even if he was avoiding the real issue. Right or not, watching Romney get served by Obama was a big morale boost for the Obamaphiles.
There’s still one more debate to go: a 90 minute back-and-forth on foreign policy. This will be Mr. Romney’s chance to finally hold the President accountable on the Libya issue, not to mention on Iran, Egypt, Syria, Israel, Russia, Eastern Europe, China and more. It will also be a debate format that favors Mitt’s PowerPoint precision style. No more asinine questions from so-called undecided voters and fewer opportunities for the President’s distracting attacks over Bain and Big Bird.
Here’s hoping that the next debate is an honest policy discussion with substance. It’s time for both men to put the knives down and calm themselves – there are bigger things at stake in this election than Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. Americans deserve better than another rumble.