I'm seeing a lot floating around in my different feeds from my politically active friends and relatives (on both sides) trying to ascertain why Romney didn't win last night. In a lot of ways, it mirrors what happened with the first debate, only without as much certainty.
There was, for sure, a lot of “moderator blaming” the first time around, but it seemed to quiet down
fairly quickly. It was hard to deny that President Obama's performance was significantly less than impressive. But people tried. It was the moderator. It was the altitude. It was his anniversary. It was all manner of things, except the obvious one: he messed up.
Now I'm seeing the same thing, except from my Republican friends. Candy Crowley seems to be bearing the brunt of their disfavor, but there have been other points mentioned. (Nothing yet about altitude, but it wouldn't surprise me if it doesn't pop up eventually – although I'm not holding my breath waiting for it. At this height, I might faint!)
Some of the critiques in question were that Candy Crowley allegedly interrupted Romney more times than she interrupted Obama. But Romney took it upon himself early on to play at being the moderator, and attempted several times to allot himself extra answers, while Obama did so much less frequently. I can only imagine that this would wrack up an additional “interruption” count. People have also claimed (I wasn't timing them, nor have I seen the claim from any reputable, non-partisan source, so I can't say) that Obama ended up with more time than Romney. Whether that is true or not, I cannot say; but I do know that Governor Romney, on several occasions, made the mistake of giving up his own time to allow Obama to answer questions he had posed. And Romney, on quite a few occasions, was allowed to run well past his 2:00 minutes – so to suggest that either of these things, even if true, are evidence of “bias” or contributed to Romney's less impressive showing is hogwash.
Of course, the big one they are slamming Crowley on is the fact-checking moment, where Obama and Romney were engaged in a “Did to!” “Did not!” “Did so!” moment, and Candy Crowley interjected with fact. This was when discussing Libya, and the President's remarks following the attack. Mitt Romney correctly asserted that the President's administration did not label the attack a pre-planned September 11th follow up attack; but he made the mistake of using the word “terror”. President Obama did use the word terror to describe it, even as his administration believed it was a spontaneous act of terror in response to a YouTube video. The main crux of Mitt Romney's argument was true, but the insistence that Barack Obama had not used that particular word was incorrect. So, when the two devolved into arguing that particular (which was inconsequential, in view of the overall argument), Candy Crowley – correctly – stepped in, and provided the facts: the president did refer to the attack as an act of terror, but he did not assert that it was anything beyond a response to the video. The Libya attack is a very weak point for Obama, but Governor Romney simply didn't handle himself well during this question. He stumbled, and stuttered, and got lost in bickering back and forth over the particular use of the word “terror” rather than the source of that terror (which was his ultimate point). Crowley's interruption, had Romney not been so befuddled at that moment, could have served him very well indeed, because, in essence, she agreed with the President on a technicality, but him on the main point. There could be a thousand reasons why Romney missed that opportunity, but none of them are Candy Crowley. She had just given him the point.
So what factors, if not Candy Crowley,contributed to the stark difference between this debate and the first? I would posit that it was a combination of the following.
- Expectations for his opponent had been lowered already. To be frank, Obama's first debate was pretty awful. As Romney did with the Libya question this time around, the president missed quite a few opportunities then. It was the domestic policy debate, for heaven's sake, and somehow Obama didn't even mention the 47%, or half the other things he should have said to win. It seemed like the President had bought into the rhetoric of his own campaign, that Mitt Romney was a gaffe-prone amateur, and not a real contestant. As a result, his performance was very bad; even where he could have, if his head was in the game, trounced Romney, he still lost. And, after such a bad showing, a strong, steady performance this time seemed better even than it was, simply by virtue of the contrast between it and the previous debate.
- President Obama did very well. This is the counterpart to the first point – not only had expectations been lowered, but Obama put in a very strong showing this time around. There were several times – equal pay, for instance – where he really knocked it out of the park. He also took Romney to task for his own failings – his vagueness, his outsourcing, etc. He got in a mention of the infamous “47%” comments. Perhaps one of the most memorable lines from the debate was when President Obama chided Romney that he, as a businessman, would never take “such a sketchy plan” as he was offering the American people. This was not only not the sleeping Obama of the first debate: this was an able, articulate opponent, ready for a fight.
- Romney made some mistakes. Some small, some bigger. First of all, he tried to moderate, right off the bat. Maybe he was trying to channel some Joe Biden (a risky bet, seeing as how Biden's performance was both widely heralded and derided for that aggressiveness); maybe he was hoping it would be another night of both contestants steamrolling the moderator. Who knows. But the problem? Obama didn't do it, and Crowley didn't let Romney get away with it. So Romney looked like a jerk, while Obama didn't, and he gained nothing for it. This was a bad move, all the way around. He also looked very uncomfortable, especially at first. It was that old Romney “robot” look, replacing the lively candidate of the first debate. Stiff and uncomfortable doesn't do you any favors, especially when you're trying to live down a reputation of being...well, stiff and uncomfortable around people. Romney also directly engaged Obama several times with questions, with the object of forcing a damning answer from him – but which, in practice, meant he gave up his own time to let the President make points. He got a little smarter about it later, and tried to force Obama to answer questions quickly and concisely, but Obama wasn't playing that game. So a losing strategy, any way you look at it. And he got flustered. Particularly during the foreign policy question. This one, honestly, should have been one of his strongest; this is one where the Obama administration is pretty weak. When Crowley affirmed that Obama had used the word “terror”, but that Romney's assertion was otherwise correct, this could have been a moment of triumph for him: they had both been “fact checked” by an impartial third party on national TV, but his error was minor and inconsequential to the overall point. He could have scored big points here, but he let it slip away. This was unfortunate, but less preventable than the others.
- Romney's comments about working women & single parents. You know, where his solution to equal pay for equal work was to basically say that we women need special, not equal, treatment, and that single parenting more or less causes gang violence. Simply cringe inducing. Single parents are favorite targets of right wing moralistic outrage, but penalizing and stigmatizing them helps nobody. Some on the right just haven't got that memo yet, or so it would seem. Families – not just women, not just men – are increasingly demanding more flexible and accommodating employment, to allow them to raise kids. But less and less, these days, are the responsibilities of child rearing falling solely to women, and more and more women are prioritizing their careers. Thus this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an answer to equal pay. Working women aren't asking for special favors. Working women aren't upset because we don't get to leave earlier than our male counterparts or do less than them; we're pissed because we make $.75 to every $1 that a man, doing the same work, makes. We're pissed because thinking like that – that hiring women means making special accommodations for us – is still pervasive in certain sectors of the workforce, and it makes it harder for us to get hired and harder for us to advance.
- Lack of specifics. Romney was vague on a lot of things. For instance, beyond PBS, we still don't know what subsidies are going. We don't know which loopholes are going. We have the $25K deduction cap, but that – as he said last night – was “just a number”. And it's 25K less than he put forth the last time. In other words, not specific or certain at all. There were times when he didn't answer the questions that were asked, also – or answered with campaign trail rhetoric, rather than specifics. Now, he wasn't alone on this one – President Obama did the same, and Governor Romney was far more specific than Paul “the Eel” Ryan was last week. But it didn't do much to make his message resonate.
These are the five points that kept Romney from winning, in my opinion. It was not as bad as it could have been for the Romney campaign, though. This certainly was not a loss of the magnitude of Obama's first, nor was it a terribly damaging debate. Nor were his mistakes likely to have a huge impact on voters; it would take someone with a stellar history of advancing the cause of women's equality, for instance, to undo Obama's lead in this area, so reiterating dated BS on the topic probably didn't lose him many votes. And Romney effectively argued several points, particularly where energy was concerned. Even though he did not make much of it, the moderator affirmed that Obama's response to Libya was more or less what Romney had been claiming. He more or less held his ground on most topics. He lost some points, but won others. In the end, he didn't win the night, but he didn't lose very badly. And, if he follows Obama's example, and learns from his mistakes...well, it will be an interesting final debate!