Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Obama-Romney II: The president, on point

IT’S A LONG fight to Election Day, and last night, like before, President Obama played more of the long game against his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney. What I’d originally thought was a “stealth TKO” for the president at the debate in Denver was actually the first third of a heavyweight fight.

For a lot of people (and nearly every political analyst), the Denver debate was a triumph of aggression at the expense of insight. We always knew Romney could be something of a bully, and he proved it in Denver. Or he tried to. But being a bully is a short-term proposition. A comeuppance begins in the middle rounds.

The former Massachusetts governor got one last night, at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., at the hands of a president more animated, less cerebral, more in his element last night than he was in Denver. Last night he brought all the weapons at his disposal, first and foremost the ability to connect with voters in a way Romney does not and never did.

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Maybe it was destined to be a good night. Team Obama had gotten good news on two fronts earlier in the day: The Supreme Court restored early in-person voting in Ohio, letting stand a lower court ruling that will let that Ohio tradition resume before the Nov. 6 election.

And among those Americans who’ve already voted, Obama has a commanding lead over Romney, 59 percent to 31 percent, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll. “[Seven] 7 percent of those surveyed said they had already voted either in person or by mail,” Reuters reported. And almost forgot, Wall Street had a terrific day, with the Dow climbing 127 points.

But the president didn’t need tie-ins like that, welcome though they were. In four areas — women and the economy; immigration matters; the Libya tragedy and the devastating power of campaign optics — Obama succeeded last night unambiguously, on his own terms, prowling the stage, radiating an obvious self-confidence, following through on what he must have learned in Denver, letting Romney be Romney (again) and winning the second presidential debate in a flat-out walk.

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THROUGHOUT THE debate, Romney seemed to be holding serve. It was a big opportunity to punch through, to fully capitalize on his pugnacious performance in Denver. Last night was the time to close the sale. But Romney never did that; he relied again and again on the same bullet points and general concepts that have masqueraded as an economic plan for months. He was offering business-plan evangelism when the investors were waiting for the numbers.

“We don’t have to live like this,” he said at one point before regurgitating the same gauzy principles he’s been offering all year, and almost word for word.

The Romney five-point plan? “Energy independence for North America in five years —“

Specifically how, Governor?

“—Opening up more trade, particularly in Latin America —“

And how would this be done differently from what the president’s already doing with the three trade deals he signed last year, two of them with Latin American countries?

“—cracking down on China when they cheat—“

What are the details, sir?

“—Getting us to a balanced budget —“

Specifics, please? Please?

“— and finally, championing small business …”

All in all, more of the same boilerplate, PowerPoint sales pitch he’s been spouting since his campaign began.

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These generalities were joined by Romney’s ritual advertisements for himself, all debate long.

“I know what it takes to get this economy going.” “I know what it takes to create good jobs again.” “I know what it takes to make sure that you have the kind of opportunity you deserve.” “I know what it takes to make an economy work.” “I know what it takes to balance budgets.”

The president pushed back on all of it. Hard.

“Governor Romney’s says he’s got a five-point plan? Governor Romney doesn’t have a five-point plan. He has a one-point plan. And that plan is to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules. That’s been his philosophy in the private sector, that’s been his philosophy as governor, that’s been his philosophy as a presidential candidate.

“You can make a lot of money and pay lower tax rates than somebody who makes a lot less. You can ship jobs overseas and get tax breaks for it. You can invest in a company, bankrupt it, lay off the workers, strip away their pensions, and you still make money.

“That’s exactly the philosophy that we’ve seen in place for the last decade. That’s what’s been squeezing middle class families. And we have fought back for four years to get out of that mess. The last thing we need to do is to go back to the very same policies that got us there.”

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OBAMA WAS asked: “In what new ways to you intend to rectify the inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn?”

The president invoked the Lily Ledbetter Act, his first major piece of legislation. “And it’s named after this amazing woman who had been doing the same job as a man for years, found out that she was getting paid less, and the Supreme Court said that she couldn’t bring suit because she should have found about it earlier, whereas she had no way of finding out about it.

“So we fixed that. And that’s an example of the kind of advocacy that we need, because women are increasingly the breadwinners in the family. This is not just a women’s issue, this is a family issue, this is a middle-class issue, and that’s why we’ve got to fight for it.”

Romney’s solution? “What we can do to help young women and women of all ages is to have a strong economy, so strong that employers that are looking to find good employees and bringing them into their workforce and adapting to a flexible work schedule that gives women opportunities that they would otherwise not be able to afford.”

Well, isn’t that intelligent, enlightened employers are doing already?

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Later, in a broader discussion of advocacy for women, Obama followed up brilliantly:

“When Governor Romney says that we should eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, there are millions of women all across the country, who rely on Planned Parenthood for, not just contraceptive care, they rely on it for mammograms, for cervical cancer screenings. That’s a pocketbook issue for women and families all across the country. And it makes a difference in terms of how well and effectively women are able to work. When we talk about child care, and the credits that we’re providing. That makes a difference in whether they can go out there and, and earn a living for their family.

“These are not just women’s issues. These are family issues. These are economic issues.”

Four words — “that’s a pocketbook issue” — will resonate with every woman under the American sun. You could see it in the faces of the people assembled, and women in particular. Those words told them, like nothing else could, Obama understands. He may or may not feel my pain, but he knows what my pain feels like.

And in a horse race of an election, that could make all the difference.

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FOR FIVE weeks, Team Romney has been hoping to score the president on the crisis in Libya, sparked by a Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi in which four Americans were killed. But last night, rather than focus on the more salient, more substantive points of the administration’s lackluster explanations of what happened and how we could have prevented it, Romney tried to play the gotcha game, letting things drift into imagistics.

"I think it's interesting the president said something, which is on the day after the attack he went in the Rose Garden and said this was an act of terror," Romney said, then turning to Obama. "You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack, it was an act of terror? It was not a spontaneous demonstration, is that what you are saying?"

“I want to make sure we get that for the record,” Romney continued, his eyes widening. “It took the president 14 days before he called it an act of terror.”

“Get the transcript,” Obama said, and CNN’s uncannily prepared Candy Crowley did just that, on the spot — pulling out a document that showed that the president was right. “He did, in fact, call it an act of terror,” she told Romney, alluding to the Presdient’s statement in the Rose Garden on Sept. 12.

Obama stuck the knife in. “Could you say that a little louder, Candy? Terror.” The hunter got captured by the game he thought he’d win.

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But if what sticks in the mind of presidential debates are other special moments like that — Ross Perot getting p’wned by Al Gore, Lloyd Bentsen’s demolition of Dan Quayle — this second 2012 presidential debate didn’t disappoint in the optical department. The way things looked.

At one point, in a discussion about immigration, Romney got on his high horse of entitlement and tried to hijack the debate, insisting on talking about his own personal wealth, defensively jabbering about his investments in a blind trust. Getting further and further from ... immigration.

“We’re way off topic here, Governor Romney.” Crowley said. Then, moments later, fully exasperated, “If I could have you sit down, Governor Romney. Thank you.”

Crowley sent Mitt to his stool — told the Republican nominee to go sit in the corner. And in front of 65 million people, Mitt Romney obliged without a mumblin' word.

Last night Mitt Romney looked a lot like everyone said Obama looked at the Denver debate: less than fully engaged, a beat behind, on the defensive. David Axelrod, Obama campaign manager, said to MSNBC that Romney “looked like a man who was backpedaling all night long.”

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OR A semblance of a man, an amazing simulation. Look for it in the video: At one point exactly an hour and 25 minutes into the debate, Mitt Romney walks across the stage to face another citizen questioner … walks for some distance like a zombie, stiff-legged and robot-deliberative, like one of the animatronics in the Hall of Presidents at Disney World.

Accidentally bizarre optics from Romney got an assist from camera angles, and the candidate’s own habits. There was something retiring in Romney’s physicality last night. More than once he says his piece and walks back to his stool while the president speaks. But watch the pool video. On different occasions, at a distance, when the president stands and walks around, he does so in front of a camera that’s half as far from him as it is from Romney.

The framing effect was obvious: At different times in the debate, the image of the president loomed twice as large on the screen as the image of the governor. For long enough and often enough to be more than an afterthought, Obama looked to be twice the man Romney was.

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Leave it to Barry Green, a citizen, to ask The Question that would frame the debate.

“To each of you: 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. “In the nature of a campaign, it seems that some campaigns are focused on attacking a person rather than prescribing their own future and the things they’d like to do. In the course of that, I think the president’s campaign has tried to characterize me as — as someone who’s very different than who I am.

“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.”

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IT WAS all heartfelt, warm and fuzzy, and a huge tactical blunder. His remarks, of course, obliquely referenced the infamous “47 percent” comment he made in Boca Raton, Fla., last May, basically subscribing to the idea that almost half the country is populated by freeloaders and layabouts who get what they deserve.

To the president, Barry Green's question was a huge hanging curveball, and he parked it in the bleachers where it belonged. “There’s a fundamentally different vision about how we move our country forward,” Obama said.

“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.”

“If you were scoring it on points, Obama wins on points," the conservative Charles Krauthammer said on Fox News. “Points?” That’s crap. Not this time. Not this third of the fight. It was Obama all the way. And Team Romney knows it. Unlike Romney in the Denver debate, President Obama went productively on offense last night, pulling back the curtain on the Great & Powerful Mitt. President Obama was on point last night.

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AND JUST like Romney’s campaign benefited from a post-debate bounce in the polls, the early results for Obama can be expected to come in strong. The early snapshot polls (CNN/ORC: Obama 46, Romney; PPP Colorado voters: O 48, R 44; PPP independent voters: O 58, R 36) bore that out in a hurry.

The full one-day poll reinforced what the snapshot surveys said last night: Obama beat Romney like a chef beats an egg. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released Wednesday showed that Obama’s relentless surgical aggression was a winner: 48 percent of registered voters thought Obama won, while 33 percent said Romney did.

We can expect more of the same in the days to come. And thank your personal gods — there aren’t many days to come. Hang in there. Twenty days until the election. And just five days until the last presidential debate of 2012, at Lynn University ... in Boca Raton, Florida.

Image credits: Debate images: Pool. Romney in Boca Raton: Mother Jones. CBS News flash poll results: © 2012 CBS Inc.

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