From Paris, no coffee this time, but I did manage to stay up to watch the second presidential debate, beginning at 3 a.m. Unlike the first one watched in Amsterdam, the president was alert, prepared and seemed to leave Romney mystified at moments.
And although the CNN analysts, led by Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper, clearly seemed to notice the improvement (how couldn't they?) there still appeared to be a nagging need on their part to give Mitt Romney his due, even as the president overpowered him consistently and without rancor, tearing apart false or misleading statements made by the former Massachusetts governor.
Romney started out all right, calm and earnest with the first questioner, who wanted to know if he would have a job after college. But Romney gave no specifics, other than repeating ad nausea throughout the debate how he knows how to create jobs and reduce the debt. He talked in general terms about more Pell Grants for students, but Barack Obama reminded that there were more Pell Grants during his administration and that we'd gone from losing 800,000 jobs a month to over five million created in the private sector.
Romney's chief complaint was the continuing high rate of unemployment, which nonetheless has slightly come down, and there was a major back and forth about whether it was better to have tax breaks for everyone. Romney kept to his mantra that rich people paying fewer taxes would benefit the country and create more jobs, while Obama said tax reductions for 98% of Americans and 97% of small businessmen were being held hostage by Republicans, who refused to separate the breaks for the ultra rich into a different bill, which surely wouldn't pass.
Through it all, the president was much more confident than Romney, who often seemed a bit nervous and edgy, eyes glazing as Obama repeatedly challenged his opponent's assertions. Whether it was on oil and coal production or outsourcing to China and other countries, the president was in charge of the show. For example, the former Massachusetts governor said Obama had produced 14% less oil on federal lands, which the CNN fact checkers said was misleading, and that in fact there had been more oil produced than in previous years.
The president responded to Romney's pledge to get tough with China, whose currency valuation was unfairly low and affected our trade, indicating that the valuation had increased eleven percent during his administration.
A tougher Obama let it be known repeatedly when he felt that Romney wasn't telling the truth, and when Romney, seemingly desperate at times, clearly overconfident after the last debate, reiterated yet again Obama's failed economic policies, this time citing the gas price hikes since he took office, Obama responded that the low gas prices reflected the extraordinarily horrid economic conditions existing at the time. He predicted that under Romney they well might return to a lower price, though due to the much more dire circumstances of another financial crisis brought on by a continuation of the Bush tax policies.
It went back and forth, but through it all, though Romney occasionally recovered, figuring his repetition of what was apparently still wanting in our economic recovery would score points with the voters, he pretty much never said anything in much detail, except he had a five point plan, but what exactly was it? He promised tax credits that would somehow help the middle class, but then Obama brought up the fact that the Republican candidate never quite explained, with fewer taxes coming in and with expanded payments to the military, how the middle class wouldn't be stuck with the bill?
There were emotional moments, wherein Obama played to his strengths, supporting women through the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, designed to prevent absurd statutes of limitations that prevented Ledbetter from suing over a discriminatory pay issue. Romney's response was that he appointed a lot of women to high posts when he was governor. Obama trumped that answer, indicating he wanted healthier women, who would then have a greater shot in the workplace, which segued into a discussion of the merits of his health care act, which he reminded one and all was almost identical to the one passed into law during Romney's governorship of Massachusetts.
And then it got a little ugly, when Romney brought up the Libyan incident, accusing Obama of not seeming to know it was a terrorist act when he spoke in the Rose Garden the day after. But before Obama could respond, moderator Candy Crowley, who beautifully handled the two men, pretty much shutting them up when their time was over, unlike the previous moderator Jim Lehrer, interrupted Romney to say that, in fact, Obama had called it a terrorist act, prompting the president to ask if she might say it again a little louder.
Romney caused a bit of a sensation when he accused Obama of shortly thereafter insensitively going off on some fundraising events throughout the tragedy, which piqued the president's anger, as he took Romney to task for challenging his integrity and concerns as president.
And the president ultimately had the last word, finally getting in Romney's oft-repeated video remarks about 47% of the nation not paying taxes and dependent upon government handouts. This was a missed opportunity for Obama during the last debate, and he picked an optimum time in the closing moments to highlight those on social security and in the military as hardly the sort of groups to scorn, as Romney without naming them had.
This was a president absolutely on top of things, and he was particularly prepared. In many instances, Romney seemed not sure what to say, so he robotically stuck to the points his handlers made sure he had memorized. Such was the tension that at the end there didn't appear to be the socializing and felicitous handshakes as before. What was similar, however, was the need for the media to give Romney false credit, even as it was impossible for them to credibly downplay the president's performance as they'd done two weeks ago.
David Gergen did allow that Obama was "most improved," but nonetheless said that Romney now had two "solid debates" in his corner and that he had a "better strategy" for this debate. Is he out of his mind? NBC's Savannah Guthrie said the two candidates had done equally well. Wolf Blitzer, though he admitted Obama was much better, criticized the president's Libyan answer and said that Romney missed an opportunity, not at all apparently noticing that Romney appeared shell shocked at the end. But how could he or the others? If they didn't essentially call it a draw and there was no longer suspense, now that we know what Obama is capable of in the last weeks leading up to the election, in addition to Romney's increasingly tiresome repetition of complaints and a non-specific package of solutions to prove how things would be different, these media folks would have nothing to talk about.
But, come to think of it would that be so bad? Thursday, I'll be returning to the States and will watch the final debate, thank the Lord, in EDT during a short visit to South Florida.
Michael Russnow's website is www.ramproductionsinternational.com