It’s easy to imagine Mitt Romney storming into his car elevator after last night’s debate, tearing Candy Crowley’s picture out of his “binder full of women,” and stomping on it. And there’s no doubt that elated Democrats across the country had visions of the President and the First Lady fist bumping in the back seat of their limo all the way to Air Force One after the Obama’s back-from-the-dead performance on stage at Long Island’s Hofstra University.
You can understand the Democrat’s élan.
After all, it was, as all the snap polls taken immediately afterwards showed, the win that the wounded Obama campaign desperately needed after the President’s dismal performance in Colorado on Oct. 3. The quickly congealing conventional wisdom from the pundit class seemed to indicate that it would help the President, already in better shape after Joe Biden bailed him out last week, to pick up some of the ground he had lost in the polls.
But you’ll forgive me if I don’t share my liberal friends’ enthusiasm over the return of a suddenly reenergized Obama, or my conservative friends’ complacent belief that Governor Romney held his own, though any objective viewer would be hard-pressed to come to the conclusion that he got the better of the President on any of the issues they sparred over.
Because what I saw last night was somewhat different that what my most partisan friends saw, I saw two alpha males so obsessed with trying to bloody each other’s noses that they practically ignored the 11 undecided voters, members of a larger group selected by the Gallup organization, who were there not just to ask questions of the candidates but to serve as proxies for the rest of us.
It started with the very first question from a young college student who wanted to know what the President and Mitt Romney had in mind for his future. The question triggered the first of several heated exchanges between the two, a wide ranging discussion about energy policy, job programs, Pell grants, and yet neither one of them ever thought to ask the young man what plans, what hopes, what fears he had about his future. One can only imagine how a Ronald Reagan would have answered the kid.
Later, when a young woman asked how the candidates would address the persistent problem of unequal pay between women and men, the President touted the fact that the first bill he signed (and the last on the subject) was the Lily Ledbetter equal pay act, while Romney touted his record of hiring women a decade ago while he was governor of Massachusetts. He even made sure they could get home from their jobs in time to make dinner. Romney also inadvertently launched a whole new Internet sensation claiming the women he selected had been chosen from a big “binder full of women” collated and brought to him by underlings.
In a battle that all the pundits say pivots on winning the hearts and minds of women, both men seemed to be dealing with women in the abstract. They used that abstraction to bludgeon each other and failed to deal with a woman who was standing right in front of them.
And again, when it came to the issue of immigration, posed by yet another young woman, neither bothered to explore how the young woman who posed the question would be personally affected by their stands on the issue.
Sure, they defended their positions, and attacked each other. The President painted Romney, who has taken a very hard line stance on the issue since the primaries, as being to the right of former President George W. Bush, saying “George Bush embraced comprehensive immigration reform. He didn’t call for self-deportation.”
Romney, of course, tried to soften that stance, arguing that while he supported a nation wide E-verify system that would force employers to hire only documented workers, he had no intention of deporting 12 million people “undocumented illegals,” calling them in a phrase that it unlikely to win him many new Latino voters. He vehemently – and correctly – denied that he had called Arizona’s controversial SB 1070 immigration law “a model for the country.” But he didn’t fare as well when Obama pointed out that Romney’s chief advisor on immigration issues, Kris Kobach, “is the guy who designed the Arizona law, the entirety of it; not E-Verify, the whole thing. That's his policy. And it's a bad policy. And it won't help us grow."
They traded blows over the Dream Act, the President reminding debate watchers that Romney had said he would veto such a measure if it came across his desk, while Romney maintained that he favors a plan that stops short of offering citizenship but would allow permanent resident status in exchange for military service “for the kids of those who came here illegally.”
And Romney held Obama’s feet to the fire for failing to force comprehensive immigration reform through Congress during his first term, noting that despite the President’s claim that a reluctant Congress had forced him to do only what he could do administratively, the Democrats had controlled both houses of Congress during the first two years of his administration.
By that point, it seemed, the young woman who had asked the question had long been forgotten by both men. I found myself imagining how a candidate like Bill Clinton would have responded to her. He still would have been biting his bottom lip and feeling her pain, while these guys were trying to mop the floor with each other.
The pundits today are all writing about how President Obama, with his performance last night, did what he needed to do. He was vital, aggressive, engaged – “all fired up” as he might put it, and he succeeded in a way he failed in Denver to inspire his base and show those few remaining undecided voters just how vast a chasm there is between him and Governor Romney. And he did have some very strong moments, turning back Romney’s attack on his handling of the murderous Sept. 11 assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi with a forceful and very presidential sounding rebuke of Romney. “The suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the Secretary of State, our U.N. Ambassador, anybody on my team, would play politics or mislead when we lost four of our own, Governor, is offensive," he said.
And Romney suffered a few self-inflicted wounds, not least when moderator Crowley had to correct him and point out that yes, in fact, the President had used the word “terrorism” in discussing the attacks the very next day.
But for me, and I suspect for a lot of the people who were in that theater on Long Island last night, what he and Mitt Romney really showed is how vast the chasm is between the men who want to be our leader and the rest of us.
Seamus McGraw is a freelance journalist who has contributed to dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Playboy, The Forward, and Readers' Digest. He is the author of "The End of Country: Dispatches from the Frack Zone." He can be reached on Twitter @seamusmcgraw, or on Facebook at The End of Country.