Commentary Magazine


Nasty Smackdown Won’t Alter Race

President Obama didn’t repeat his mistakes in the first presidential debate in Denver two weeks ago. He looked interested in the proceedings on Long Island and responded strongly to attacks and got in plenty of stingers as well as making some clever tactical strokes at Romney’s expense. Romney had his moments, especially when speaking about the president’s economic failures. The Republican also missed some wide-open opportunities to nail the president on issues like the Libya terrorist attack. But that won’t necessarily translate into a complete reversal of the losses Obama experienced after their previous encounter. The question that pollsters will be wondering most about won’t be which of the two candidates scored the most points but whether the bruising and nasty tone of the confrontation turned off more voters than it engaged.

The president’s palpable anger at Romney was barely contained. He fulfilled the Democratic base’s desire to bash the GOP candidate relentlessly but he did so at times by taking the cheapest of shots such as a hypocritical swipe about Romney’s investments and by filibustering and taking up more than three minutes more of airtime than his opponent. Though he stopped short of repeating Vice President Biden’s bullying act last week, it’s far from clear that the most of the public — especially undecided voters — will regard the evening as anything but a muddled slugfest.

Whenever he spoke about the economy and jobs, Romney did well. He did much worse when forced to respond to questions like the one about equal pay for women when he responded with a lengthy off-the-point reminiscence about hiring staff in which he got “binders full of women.” He also made some mistakes in terms of debating strategy by asking the president questions and then letting him out talk him.

Most memorable was his meandering response to President Obama’s non-response to a very clear question about whether he knew the Libya incident was a terrorist attack. Instead of hammering Obama with all the times he talked about the video, he harped on the one moment when something the president said could have been interpreted as a saying it was a terrorist attack when his comments were actually, as Commentary pointed out at the time, was a general comment rather than a reference to Benghazi. That allowed moderator Candy Crowley to chide Romney with an instant less than accurate fact check that helped Obama wiggle out of the trap.

Romney also failed to adequately answer Obama’s claim that he opposed contraception coverage when his disagreement is about the ObamaCare mandate that would compel religious institutions and believers to violate their faith and beliefs.

Though he closed with a moving testimony to this faith and his record of caring about and helping people, he also set up Obama to finally mention his “47 percent” gaffe in his concluding statement when the Republican had not opportunity to respond.

Nevertheless, on the key issues of the economy, taxes, fuel prices and health care, Romney clearly bested the president who once again failed to explain his record or to say what he would do in the future. His energy and focus remained very much at the same level as the first debate meaning the inroads he made with a public that has begun to understand the Democrats’ mischaracterization of him was false. For all of the punches landed by Obama, as many Americans are turned off by the nastiness displayed at Hofstra than enjoyed or admired it.

The president’s base will be energized by the fact that he scored more points in this encounter than Romney. But whatever advantage he may gained they won’t bring the race back to where it was before Denver. That’s better than another loss for Obama but not enough to really alter the current direction of the election.