resident Obama’s supporters clamored for him to reference Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent” gaffe in their first tete-a-tete in Denver two weeks ago, and his opting not to encapsulated why so many of them were frustrated with his laconic performance. He didn’t seem like he wanted to win, they said. He let Romney off the hook. His partisans seemed to think the ’47 percent’ attack was like some mystical incantation that would have both seduced undecideds and saved him from his listlessness. It wouldn’t have.
By the time he finally invoked the “47 percent” — in hs closing remarks during last night’s town hall-style debate in Hempstead, N.Y. — it wasn’t even really necessary, serving more as a coup de grâce than a game-changer. All night, the two candidates paced the stage, interrupted each other, and said the other was lying. And all night, Obama turned areas that were supposed to be weak points of his — the handling of the attacks on the Americans in Benghazi, the sluggish economy — into effective pointed attacks on Romney. He painted Romney as a shill for the wealthy, a naif on foreign policy, and someone willing to contort himself into whatever position was most politically convenient — all the things the president whiffed on in the first debate. And he goaded Romney, who kept up his aggressive approach from the last debate, into a bunch of really bad unforced errors, including this surreal exchange in which Obama allowed Romney to epically play himself.
It was the characterization that Chicago had been trying to pin on Romney for months — that he was a truth-twister who would play politics with a tragedy, and Romney walked right into it. He was visibly flustered, and spent the rest of the night trying to get back on solid ground.
How’d Obama respond to that nettlesome question about the Benghazi situation, which has plagued the White House for weeks? He told the audience that the diplomats were people he knew personally, that he greeted their coffins as they returned stateside, that the ultimate responsibility for their safety overseas was his, and it was offensive that Romney would try to score points from it. It was so expertly sold that you almost didn’t notice that the President still didn’t really answer it.
Romney’s been bedeviled by some thorny positions of his own. How would a fiscal plan that raises spending but doesn’t raise taxes even work? Romney’s response was the same, frustratingly vague answer he’s had for awhile: trust me, it works. Romney’s response on inequality in women’s pay and health issues continues to be, bizarrely, that he knows and employs a lot of women. But he only got to that after he said he didn’t know any qualified women to fill posts during his governorship in Massachusetts and asked women’s groups to find him some good ladyfolk to hire. “So we took a concerted effort to go out and find women that had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet,” Romney said. “I went to a number of womens’ groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks?’ And they brought us binders full of women.” Unfortunately for Romney, his weirdly phrased answer immediately became an Internet meme and got more eyeballs than another answer might have — making the revelation that he was kind of fibbing about it all even worse. Another unforced error.
When a questioner asked Romney how his presidency would be different from that of George W. Bush, Romney offered up some word salad about how Bush was different and, you know, Latin America. Uh, okay. Obama didn’t say Romney would be the same as Bush — he said Romney would be worse. He would cut funding to Planned Parenthood, Obama said. He would turn Medicare into a voucher program, Obama said. Guys, even Bush wouldn’t do that!
The panic that beset Democrats after Obama’s Denver disaster was eased, if not completely stanched, by Joe Biden’s scenery-chewing outing last week. Obama followed up with aplomb, and aplomb isn’t really something he’s known for. His debate performance was so strong that one wonders what the polls might look like had he pulled this off two weeks ago. As it stands, this great night was probably just enough to get him out of the hole.