While we’re all chuckling at the “binder full of women” jokes, I’d like to look at a few other moments from last night, some of which I thought were powerful and some which troubled me. After a night of slumber, my brain has drawn these conclusions, presented in no particular order:
The town hall format is not good for showing the candidates’s aggression, but it makes for exciting TV—Was Mitt about to grapple with the President? It looked like that from the vantage point of my sofa, on at least two occasions. The film stills make it look like they’re blessing each other or practicing their “sit down” drills for their dogs. Turns out, podiums make good fences.
Someone told Barack Obama to keep his back turned on Romney—I lost count of the number of times that the President would respond to his challenger while facing the opposite direction from him. And he kept his eye contact to a minimum. I don’t know if David Axelrod’s new schtick is to act all above the contender, but Obama brought out the cool shoulder last night something fierce.
Mitt missed the mark every time he blew his own horn about stuff he had to do—I may have gasped a little when Romney remarked that he’d been a missionary for his church. Of course he had; every man in the Mormon faith has to complete a 2-year mission in order to become an elder. It’s not like the governor went above and beyond. Also regarding his sudden realization that there were no women in his governor’s administration; I’m sure a concerned inner circle friend pointed this out to him. Also there are laws for public administrations, regarding equal opportunity, hiring, and representation, that Mitt needed to comply with. What would have been more on point with the woman’s question posed to him would have been a mention of him asking for more female representation while he was running Bain Capital. But somehow 25 years of his oft-touted private work experience drifted by without him questioning how many women he was mentoring and promoting. Also, folks are saying today that Mr. Romney’s story is a fabrication.
The questions, and who asked them, reinforced problematic ideas about who gets to represent minority groups/interests, and what counts for “the general public”—A Latina woman asked about immigration policy and reform. A young white man asked about his career chances after college. An African American man asked why his life didn’t seem better 4 years after voting for Obama. A 30-something white woman asked about equal pay for equal work. In faithfully correlating the identity group with the question of interest, the debate gave us a caricature of issues and relegated those issues only to the subpopulation asking about them. As if everyone doesn’t benefit from an economy that prioritizes fairness in compensation for all workers? Or that we don’t all get the fruits of immigrant labor? Candy and the organizers could have worked against this idea that we are a melting pot of special interests, but that opportunity was missed.
Mr. Romney’s insistence on rules is extremely unpresidential—At multiple points last night, Mitt shouted that he was supposed to get to respond, which was a misunderstanding of the town hall format’s rules. He came off like a petulant, spoiled child while Barack basked in his cool cucumber persona. The elephant in the room of most conversations about what the presidency entails is this: presidents often work outside of rules. The drone attacks in Pakistan—where are the rules on those? Quietly sending guns to Mexico? Calling for executive privilege to hide one’s energy policy? Presidential administrations breathe rules and bust rules every minute. Romney may be familiar with seeing himself as above the rules, but he’s not supposed to be so frank about it.
Mr. Obama learned first hand that Romney breaks under pressure—Expect the President to push at Romney at least as hard in the last debate, which will focus on foreign policy. Obama now has foreign affairs experience under his belt, and Romney has a series of gaffes, one of which we got to spend quality time with in the debate last night. Look, being the first to shout “terrorism” is not a hallmark of strong leadership, but Mitt also got embarrassed by his incorrect insistence that the President didn’t talk about the Libyan attack as terrorism until two weeks after the event. “Look at the transcript,” said Obama, who acted a bit like a seasoned litigator instead of the leader of the free world. But he did win the point on what he’d said and when, and he saw that Mitt does not perform well when he feels cornered. Expect Obama to try cornering Romney a lot next Monday.
There was no real plan for the future that seems tenable or concrete—I’d hoped after the first presidential debate two weeks ago that we would get more details from these men on domestic policy agendas or plans, but we got instead marriage initiatives to stem gun violence and broad-based energy policy. No real details were presented, except as attacks on why the other guy’s plan can’t work. Voters choose a party, sure, but they also want to know what that party leader plans to do for their interests. What we really don’t want to think is that we’re voting for a guy who just wants to sit in the Oval Office. There are West Wings tours for that crap. But with each question that was posed with real feeling by Alfred Q. Public, we heard a lot of rhetoric and scant little detail. How will you help me find a job? We’ll pass a jobs bill! How will you help me after four years of me struggling? I got us out of Iraq! These questions all asked the candidates to describe their vision for the US going forward, and they never painted it out for us.
Mitt lost a huge chunk of his stump speech last night—Toward the end of the debate, as many of us were going glassy-eyed at the screen, Mitt made the very true statement of “Government doesn’t create jobs.” I blinked. Did he really say that? Yes, he did! I mean, it’s a correct analysis. Private business makes jobs. Certainly the White House can advocate for a jobs bill or for stimulus money that includes hiring people to fix bridges (which we sorely need, given the dilapidated state of our bridges) and such, but it can’t directly make jobs happen. But Mitt has been campaigning on the President’s inability to create jobs for like, the last 15 months. It’s been a part of nearly every campaign stop, because it sounds great and resonates with people. Truth, schmuth, am I right? But in making the statement that government doesn’t create jobs, Mitt took away a central piece of his argument about why people should vote for him instead of Obama. Oops.
The image of the two candidates just after the debate says it all: