More thoughts on the second presidential debate, including why Romney won a tie

Romney’s main problem is a chronic one.  While he intuitively understands what Bush Sr. used to call “the vision thing,” he can’t articulate it. He’ll spell out all the details, but he’s incapable of explaining to Americans that, if the government takes all their money, not only does it mean they don’t have it, it means the marketplace doesn’t have it.  What’s worse, Obama’s administration has provided perfect evidence that, once the government has all the money, it spends it badly, making dumb choices and pandering to special interests. With that simplistic explanation, Romney’s wonkery would have made more sense.  As it was, since I was watching on CNN which had a little chart showing real-time responses from some men and women, I could see that every time Romney got too into details, people lost interest.  (I actually found the chart irritating.  It was like watching a monitor in the ICU, breathlessly fearing that the monitor might show a flatline.)

The other problem, of course, was that Romney was in a two-against-one fight. He was game, but it was hard for him to land his punches when one attacker was off limits (for appearances sake, he couldn’t attack Crowley), while the other attacker was spouting lies left and right — and then being covered by the off-limits gal. Even if Romney had been more articulate, this was an almost impossible scenario. Gingrich might have handled it, but I’m not sure….

Michael Filozof noticed something important that I missed completely:

In all the analysis and spin in the media about Tuesday night’s debate, one item seems to have escaped scrutiny— but it struck me at the moment that Obama said it as a statement of such remarkable arrogance and hubris that I had to check the transcript today to make sure he’d actually said what I’d heard.

He did.

When queried about the lack of security at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that resulted in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, Obama responded:

“Well, let me first of all talk about our diplomats, because they serve all around the world and do an incredible job in a very dangerous situation.”

“Our” diplomats. That’s the perfunctory throwaway line. What followed was truly astonishing:

“And these aren’t just representatives of the United States, they are my representatives. I send them there, oftentimes into harm’s way.”

Whoa! Wait a second! “These aren’t ‘just’ representatives of the United States?”


“They are my representatives. I send them there” — as if that’s the more important, bigger deal? America’s Ambassadors represent the country — not the man. Article II of the Constitution says that the President “by and with” — with, mind you! — “the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors…”

Filozof goes on to analyze just how bad Obama’s unconscious arrogance really was.

Yuval Levin also put his finger on something that was bothering me about the “undecided voters'” questions.  Almost without exception, the questions assumed a liberal world view.  They assumed that women get paid $0.72 on the dollar, which is true only because women like their children and, if they can, try to do part-time or flex-time jobs that pay less.  Romney sort of alluded to that flex-time principle but, as I noted above, he’s a details guy who gets, but can’t articulate, the big picture.

The questions assumed that illegal immigrants should get to stay here.  Romney, bless his heart, tried not to pander on this one.  He almost sounded hard-line about having a meaningful border (although, again, he couldn’t explain why sovereignty matters).  Interestingly, the tougher he talked, the higher that little graph ticked up.  It’s easy to like illegal immigrants in flush times; in lean times, they’re competitors for jobs.

One of the questions assumed that guns are bad.  Romney, after a little struggle with that one, based upon anti-assault weapon legislation he signed while governor, managed to focus on people, not guns, causing crime.  Obama focused on guns, and then remembered that there are people holding those weapons.

As for the Benghazi question, I actually assumed that Crowley wrote that question, since it was clearly intended as an opening for Obama to man up and take responsibility after letting Hillary fall on her sword (after first softening the blow by blaming her security experts).  Of course, Obama blew that opportunity by lying, turning what should have been a manly confession into an embarrassing (for him and Crowley) confrontation.

But Levin has a different theory about those questions:

When the debate commission announced that this year’s town-hall debate—in which questioners would be selected from among undecided voters in the surrounding region—would be held in Long Island, N.Y., rather than in a swing state, it raised a few eyebrows. Undecided voters in Nassau County generally aren’t like undecided voters in Ohio or Virginia. They tend to be people who start from a liberal foundation but may be a little too populist to be comfortably Democratic voters these days, and so in some respects a kind of mirror image of what we normally think of as swing voters. The questions in Tuesday night’s town-hall debate certainly reflected that character. These were, on the whole, questions from disappointed Democrats. That didn’t necessarily advantage one candidate over the other: It meant some of the subjects taken up in the debate heavily favored Obama but it also meant that the tone of the questioners was almost uniformly disappointed with Obama, which is probably the most dangerous of all attitudes for the incumbent president.


Many of the questions were about the sorts of things liberals would want debates to be about. Given a chance to address the presidential candidates, would many swing voters in the battleground states in this election ask about pay equity (and ground their question in false liberal talking points on the subject)? Are they concerned about gun control? Do they think about immigration the way the debate questioner on that subject did? No. Yet at the same time many of the questioners approached Obama with an underlying sense of disappointment, and seemed to look at Romney with an eye to whether he might be a less disappointing president. I suspect this combination made this debate less interesting to undecided voters in undecided states, but that on the whole it helped Romney a bit more than Obama. Disappointment with the incumbent combined with a sense that the challenger is a reasonably plausible president is how you unseat a president, and tonight’s debate enabled Romney to advance both elements a bit even though Obama was much stronger than he was in Denver two weeks ago.

Standing on its own, the debate was probably a tie.  Obama proved he has a pulse, and Romney did okay.  That means Romney won.  As William McGurn pointed out yesterday, the only thing Obama had going into office was charisma.  He exploded that aura in his first debate, and could only have won by regaining his mystique in the second debate.  But Obama didn’t revisit the magic.  His pinched, high-pitched delivery, his vicious personal attacks on Romney, and his complete inability to state a vision or purpose for his second term (everything he said was a rehash of his first-term “vision thing”), established conclusively that “what’s done cannot be undone.”  Once you destroy something as precious and intangible as charm (and I’ll concede for this argument that Obama’s fans found him charming), you stand before the world unmasked and unarmed.

Barring massive fraud, I now believe Romney will win.  And if you’re reading this in Missouri, vote for Todd Akin.  He may have some wacky ideas, but he’s still better than Claire McCaskill and Romney needs to own the Senate to undo Obama’s and the Democrats’ first two years of damage.

UPDATE:  Just want to throw in that Wolf Howling, whose opinion I greatly respect, thinks Romney won.  And Bruce Kesler points out the most important thing, which is that voters, the ultimate critics, side with Romney on the economy and other things about which they (not the media) really care.

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  • Oldflyer

    It seems that so many folks, commentators that is,  overlook the segment when Romney looked directly at the American people and categorized Obama’s failures, and illustrated each failure with numbers.  It was very powerful.
    As far as the vision thing, I believe he did just fine on that when he told the American people that we did not have to live in the way that Obama sees us living.  We deserve better, and we can have better. 
    Romney is just a little awkward in front of the camera.  It used to bother me, but now I see it as authenticity.  Dare I say a bit endearing?

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  • Wolf Howling

    Book, thank you so much for the link and kind words.  You are absolutely right, that Romney seems to lack the ability to defend his vision with simplicity.  There are few in the political world that can, unfortunately, and there names are legend.

    As to the 2 to 1, I thought Romney more than held his own in spite of all that, at least until the Libya question, but he was sputtering and stammering on that one, not sure where to go, even before Crowley intervened.  As to Gingrich, he would have eaten both Crowley and Obama alive, I think . . . he has always been a force of nature in contentious debates.

    As to the questions, I am pretty sure that they came from undecided voters with names like Kos, Ed Schultz and Rachel Maddow – just utterly ridiculous.     

  • Ron19

    One thing I saw in the debate about the Crowley transcript of the Rose Garden announcement on Lybia but haven’t seen in the commentaries, is that not only did Crowley have the transcript in her hand (apparently), but Obama knew before hand that she would have it on her desk.