Judging a boxing match can sometimes be an imprecise exercise when both opponents show up to fight. And so it is with a political debate where both candidates engage in an epic battle to persuade voters with the assault of thoughts on their opponent.
Reeling from a universally acknowledged debate performance that lacked punch in Colorado earlier this month, President Barack Obama - we were told by democrat operatives - would come out of his corner with fight from the very start, in an effort to mitigate the self-inflicted damage resulting in a seismic shift in national polls.
His objective was to deliver a seminal performance that would win on all marks; including substance and style, while still maintaining his likability. He would have to do it facing everyday Americans in a town hall format in New York State’s Hoftsra University.
In the other corner, Mitt Romney, who had been undergoing intense debate prep with multiple questioners in long and arduous sessions, had his fight strategy: simply make the case he will improve the economy and create more jobs than his opponent has. “The middle class is getting crushed by the policies of a president who does not understand what it takes to get the economy working again,” Romney would say in one exchange.
From the first question to the very last the two candidates looked more like a Marvin Hagglar versus Tommy Hearns fight, where both combatants exhausted each other in non-stop flurry of blows, than candidates for the most powerful office in the world.
Obama pounced on Romney each time he sniffed an opportunity to accuse him of making up facts, seeming pedantic and visibly peevish each time prompting moderator, Candy Crowley, to keep Romney honest on debate rules.
The level of tension was at it’s highest during a heated exchange on energy production. The two candidates appeared to square up against each other violating each other’s personal space with all the couth of high school teens vying for the title of top jock in the gym locker room.
When responding to a question posed to President Obama from a voter who supported him in the last election but expressed he was “not as optimistic” as he was four years ago, Romney landed some tough blows by reminding viewers “He said by now we would have unemployment at 5.4 percent, but we are 7.8 percent. If you do the math, the difference equals out to nine million Americans…. He says he has created five million jobs, but only after losing 5 million jobs. There were 32 million Americans in food stamps when he took office, now there is 47 million.”
On and on, Romney listed other examples of failed promises and woeful economic results to make his point. Romney landed devastating kidney punches to the gut, upper cuts to the glass jaw President Obama didn’t know he had, and finished the flurry with pounding haymakers to the face.
All President Obama could volley back at him were defensive jabs that came by way of charges that Romney was deliberately distorting his record, but the president offered no new plans or strategies to reverse the dismal economic reality other than the threaten he desires to raise taxes on those earning more than $250 thousand.
Candidates sparred over other issues that had gone unaddressed in the previous debate such as energy, Libya and women’s issues. A particular policy exchange of note was on the matter of immigration reform. Prefacing his comments by stating “first of all this is a nation of immigrants, we welcome immigrants” Romney did much to dispel the hardline the Obama campaign had straddled him with.
The Republican candidate used the rest of his time to underscore that our legal system must be improved to work better. “No one should have to hire a lawyer to get into this country. We need to increase visas for those with advanced skills and we should staple a green card to their diploma. But we have to stop illegal immigration” he said. While he surprised no one by reminding viewers he would not vote for amnesty, he did offer hope to many of those who are in the country illegally in declaring that he would work towards instituting an employment verification system.
Oddly, it seemed to me that President Obama scored most when he talked up America’s heritage of risk-taking, free enterprise & self-reliance near the end of the debate. Had the president aligned his legislative reforms according to these virtues, instead betting on big government policies like Obamacare and Dodd-Frank, a different mix of economic results would have probably immunized him from the body blows Romney landed on him throughout the debate.
It was a prizefight for the ages that certainly gave the people their money’s worth. It was confrontational, cringe worthy and even petty at times. There was fast action, hostile and heated repartees, and there was even an inappropriate intervention by the “moderator” on a question dealing with Libya. Indeed, never had one presidential debate provide so much richness of material for pundits to chew on.
In the final count, while it appeared that Obama’s performance was clearly more animated and lively, his fight was defensive – throwing shots at Romney and rattling off excuses for four bad years of economic results. The president barely offered any solutions and plans to the American voter on how exactly he would improve the economy other than to point to the same tired and ineffectual policies.
And while Romney did not score style points either by readily engaging in testy exchanges throughout the night, I believe he bested Obama by methodically & effectively indicting his dismal economic record and doing a better job of underscoring his alternative policies aimed at increasing jobs.
Romney made it patently clear there was only one protagonist in last night’s death match who understood that this election will be judged primarily on who offers real and concrete plans to increase jobs, growth and prosperity.
And that is precisely the criteria most undecided voters were using for their scorecard last night in deciding which one of these political pugilist gets the belt on November 6th.
Daniel Garza is the Executive Director of The LIBRE Initiative and former White House staffer from 2001-2006.