Debates are subjective things. Reactions to them are highly personal, and there is no way to truly quantify the results, since even the instant polling afterward is skewed by the partisans who participate in them. Republicans watching a debate will more than likely say the Republican won, as will Democrats with their guy.
Still, supporters of President Obama would not be insane to believe that when it comes to the debates, and the media’s reaction to them, the Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, is being graded on a curve.
How else to explain how the former Massachusetts governor could reverse his every policy position — essentially remaking himself for 90 minutes on the debate stage in Denver, bully an old man (moderator Jim Lehrer) and essentially be declared the new Aristotle by an adoring press corps. President Obama in the first debate, turned in a muted performance that didn’t move the crowd, but was by no means a disaster, yet in newspaper headlines across the country the following day, his political future was almost gleefully buried in an unmarked grave.
In the second debate at Hofstra University on Tuesday, the president turned in a much different performance. He woke up, and assertively challenged Romney’s truthfulness right out of the gate.
The president pummeled Gov. Romney’s “five-point plan” for the economy, saying it consisted of just one point: making sure the rich play by different rules than the rest of us. He exposed Romney’s crassly political and self-serving reaction to the tragic death of the U.S. ambassador in Libya, with the help of a fact-checking moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley, and Romney’s own arrogance — he leaned into his insistence that the president failed to call the attack in Benghazi an act of terrorism, only to be shut down and proven wrong on live television.
That exchange will play on local television stations across the country, as will images of Romney’s almost brazen physicality with the president of the United States. And it may seem an odd juxtaposition with the pronouncements from media types that the debate results were a wash.
The former Massachusetts governor repeatedly stalked Obama across the stage, getting into his space and even admonishing Obama to wait his turn to speak. It was a breathtaking display of both personal animus (which was clearly mutual), and disrespect for the office of president.
At one point, Romney bizarrely demanded that the president explain what’s in his retirement account in order to deflect from his own money’s Cayman Islands hideaway.
Obama responded by standing nose to nose with Romney, giving as good as he got, and often dismissing his abrasiveness with a smile. That allowed him to appear the happier warrior, but also the bigger man on that stage. But so did Romney’s mistakes.
The Republican challenger whiffed on immigration reform, repeating the offensive term “illegals” over and over again. He proffered a bizarre answer to a question on gender pay equity, claiming to have solicited a “binder full of women” he could hire for his Massachusetts cabinet.
Romney refused to give any specifics in response to questions from the audience, instead demanding to recite the words “I know how to create jobs” over and over again, even as Crowley firmly insisted on moving on.
Seeming to overlearn the lessons of the Denver debate — that the media will reward him for aggressiveness — Romney tried to reprise his “shove the moderator” gambit, only to find that Crowley would not allow it.
President Obama, on the other hand, hit every point the pundits accused him of neglecting in Denver. He touted the General Motors rescue, 31 months of private sector jobs growth and his fulfillment of his promises to end the Iraq war and get Osama bin Laden.
Obama slammed Romney as an outsourcer, who would be “the last person to get tough on China.” He praised Hillary Clinton for taking responsibility for the Benghazi attacks but asserted that the buck stops with him. He was presidential and forceful, and in the words of conservative columnist Andrew Sullivan, he emerged as the debate’s alpha male. He closed with an assertive defense of the “47 percent,” after Romney served him a slow pitch on the issue.
And in every poll and every analyst’s write-up, however grudging, the president won the debate.
That, in the alternate universe called The Beltway, is called a “tie.”