In the swordplay in the second US presidential debate, it was Democratic candidate president Barack Obama who had the real steel while Republican Mitt Romney made the town hall floor a bit redder with his own self-inflicted wounds.
It may be that two candidates seeking the job of American president from January 2013 have a theoretically equal status, but Romney forgot himself in his sharp rebuke to Obama early on, with his “you’ll get your chance in a moment, I’m still speaking”. True, opinions of that moment will be informed by an individual’s own bias about the candidates, but Romney’s blunt rudeness reportedly caused a gasp in a debate venue made up mostly of undecided voters.
Romney’s biggest fluff was on the aftermath of the killing of the US ambassador in Libya. Not only did Obama come out strongly – and presidentially and commander-in-chiefly – about his own role and actions, but Romney ended up looking cheap and wrongly-informed about the president’s conduct at that time. Customarily, fact-checking comes ex post facto but this time it was instantaneous as Romney got it so spectacularly wrong about what the president had said and when he had said it.
After Romney’s bugbear theme of China throughout this campaign, the point about Romney’s own Chinese investments is a discomfiting one for the Republican. Romney’s fightback, that Obama’s own pension has Chinese investment elements, led to the best rejoinder of the debate; Obama to Romney: “I don’t look at my pension, it’s not as big as yours”.
Twenty minutes into the debate, matters were dynamic. The candidates were pacing and circling each other, confronting each other – even though, oddly, the two tall men in dark suits, microphones in hand, momentarily resembled a Rat Pack stage act in Vegas, exchanging repartee. The difference being the reality of the hostility and the improbability of a duet.
We heard nothing new of the alternative plans and criticisms of the two candidates on the economy. Romney continued his well-polished attack on the president’s record on the deficit and the plight of the middle class, who in the first debate he described as “crushed” and this time round were “buried”. Prices of fuel were up, so were prices of utilities.
Obama stayed just this side of lecturer mode as he told Romney (and the folks out there) that prices of petrol (“gas” in American English) were so low at the start of his presidency because the economy then had been on the verge of depression.
Romney stayed strong on the contrasts between his record and that of the president on deficits. Romney: “I ran the Olympics and balanced the budget…I ran the state of Massachusetts and balanced the budget…I know what is it to balance budgets, I’ve done it my entire life”.
But Romney took hits, some self-inflicted, in looking more like a reaching politician than a statesman. Asked to contrast himself with former US president George W Bush, he – in effect – indicted Bush. On gun control, Romney had no real response to Obama’s charge that the Republican candidate had shifted his position to get the NRA vote.
Obama won on his strong record on the advancement of women, against Romney’s anecdotal account of how he actively sought to appoint women to his gubernatorial administration: “they brought me binders of women”, Romney said, coining this US presidential contest’s weirdest phrase so far.
The immigration issue played to a draw, though Obama was vulnerable on unfulfilled promises and Romney’s message being perhaps more “liberal” than the rightest of his right-wing supporters may like. However, there was a subtle sound of emotion as Obama told a questioner that he would not like his daughter or hers profiled for a street check as to their legal citizenship status.
Back to the Libya moment, that steel showed when Obama told Romney that he found what he portrayed as his rival’s politicking “offensive”. Obama sounded like a president and Romney – as so often when he tried to wrestle for his voice to dominate the arena like a politician. Not that Obama was not fast in fighting for his ground and ready to interrupt – precisely creating the moment that Romney was rude to him.
One debate to go, on foreign policy – but bear in mind that this second debate may have been the decisive one in an election being fought on domestic economic issues. All that this debate decided is that Obama is a president in control, and that is no small thing.
* A CNN/ORC post-debate poll hands Obama 46 per cent and Romney 39 per cent. Seventy-three per cent of those polled said that Obama did better in the second debate than in the first.