President Obama dominated the second presidential debate at Hofstra University in Uniondale, Long Island, on Tuesday night by accomplishing what he failed to do in the first: He prevented Romney from pivoting to the center. If “Moderate Mitt” won the debate in Denver, then Obama was determined to make sure that the “severely conservative” version of his opponent would be on display at the Hofstra “town meeting.”
No longer subdued or passive, Obama forcefully dictated the terms of the debate. Each time that Romney attempted to walk back one of the right-wing stances he had adopted during the Republican primaries, the president directly called him out for inconsistency.
When Romney tried a softer tone on immigration, Obama pointed out that he had spent the primaries promising to veto the DREAM Act, promote “self-deportation,” and adopt Arizona’s controversial “show me your papers” law as a model for the nation. When Romney pushed back on this last point, Obama noted correctly that Kansas Republican Kris Kobach — the law’s author — is a top Romney advisor on immigration. “That’s his policy,” Obama said. “And it’s a bad policy.”
Similarly, when the former governor made his pitch to female voters (using an odd anecdote about the “binders full of women” he used to staff his Massachusetts cabinet,) Obama reminded the audience that “when Governor Romney’s campaign was asked about the Lilly Ledbetter bill, whether he supported it? He said, ‘I’ll get back to you.’ And that’s not the kind of advocacy that women need in any economy.”
Then after Romney answered a question on how his policies differ from those of George W. Bush — saying he would be tougher on China, work more aggressivley to expand trade, and avoid budget deficits — Obama dropped the hammer:
You know, there are some things where Governor Romney is different from George Bush. George Bush didn’t propose turning Medicare into a voucher. George Bush embraced comprehensive immigration reform. He didn’t call for self-deportation.
George Bush never suggested that we eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, so there are differences between Governor Romney and George Bush, but they’re not on economic policy. In some ways, he’s gone to a more extreme place when it comes to social policy. And I think that’s a mistake. That’s not how we’re going to move our economy forward.
President Obama also went out of his way to revive the narrative of Mitt Romney as out-of-touch plutocrat, which had gained traction over the summer. He repeatedly slammed Romney for investing with “outsourcing pioneers,” for only paying an income tax rate of 14 percent, and — in his closing remarks — for Romney’s infamous disparaging of the “47 percent.”
“When he said behind closed doors that 47 percent of the country considered themselves victims who refuse personal responsibility, think about who he was talking about,” Obama said. “Folks on Social Security who’ve worked all their lives. Veterans who’ve sacrificed for this country. Students who are out there trying to hopefully advance their own dreams, but also this country’s dreams. Soldiers who are overseas fighting for us right now. People who are working hard every day, paying payroll tax, gas taxes, but don’t make enough income.”
“And I want to fight for them. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last four years,” the president continued. “Because if they succeed, I believe the country succeeds.”
Obama also used Romney’s time at Bain to land one of his sharpest attacks of the night, on Romney’s continued refusal to name any tax deductions that he would eliminate in order to make his cuts revenue neutral.
“Now, Governor Romney was a very successful investor,” Obama said. “If somebody came to you, Governor, with a plan that said, here, I want to spend $7 or $8 trillion, and then we’re going to pay for it, but we can’t tell you until maybe after the election how we’re going to do it, you wouldn’t take such a sketchy deal and neither should you, the American people, because the math doesn’t add up.”
Romney was able to score a few points of his own, particularly when criticizing Obama for failing to advance comprehensive immigration reform, and for breaking promises that he made on the economy during his 2008 campaign. Romney’s rhetorically successful moments were often overshadowed by his tendency to talk over Obama and argue with moderator Candy Crowley of CNN, however.
Romney’s two worst moments came when he tried to agressively attack Obama — only to have the tables suddenly turned. Trying to turn around Obama’s critique of his investments in dubious Chinese companies by asking the president three times “Have you looked at your pension?”, Obama dismissively replied “You know, I don’t look at my pension. It’s not as big as yours so it doesn’t take as long.” The audience laughed and Romney seemed clueless.
Later, in the debate’s most memorable moment, Romney got caught again trying to spin the tragic consulate attack in Benghazi to his advantage. After Obama sternly lectured Romney against playing politics with national security, Romney charged Obama with lying about labeling the incident as an “act of terror” — only to be corrected by Crowley. This time the audience applauded, and Romney was left sputtering.
The exchange made Romney appear unpresidential, can be repeated ad nauseum on cable news and in political advertisements. and could neutralize Romney’s main talking point at the third and final debate, which will focus on foreign policy.
When that debate comes, “Moderate Mitt” will again try to take center stage. If Obama again manages to highlight the “severely conservative” version of his opponent — whose entire foreign policy team is stacked with Bush administration officials — then the third debate will be even more lopsided than the first two.
Photo credit: AP/Charlie Niebergall