A Draw, but No Back Sliding

by Hunter Baker

In my view, it is not possible to declare a winner in the second debate. The two candidates appeared evenly matched. However, Romney, as the man less known by the American people, benefits whenever he competes on an even footing with President Obama. When he succeeds as a potential peer, he adds credibility to the idea of himself as an option ,and Americans are open to options these days.  

Members of the Church of Latter Day Saints don’t drink caffeine, as I was reminded on a trip to BYU-Idaho last week, but Governor Romney began the debate as though he’d been sipping Red Bull like Felix Baumgartner. He seemed overly aggressive with both President Obama and with Ms. Crowley. Obama returned the favor. Both campaigns have read a memo about the virtues of being on attack and mixing it up. They would be better served working on clear and memorable answers in stead of displays of emotion and personal power. To the credit of both men, the pair settled down into a more comfortable level of confrontation and exchange after the first half hour.  

On the whole, the questions from the town-hall crowd were better than expected. The best were those that were simple and direct: A middle-aged African-American man pointed out that the last four years had been difficult and that he’d experienced trouble with rising prices. He wanted to know what would be done to make things better. Another fellow asked very simply whether the president agreed with his cabinet secretary that the Department of Energy has no role in reducing the price of gasoline. Excellent questions. The worst were those that smelled phony. One woman posed as a disaffected Obama voter who wanted to know how Romney would be different from President Bush. A younger woman asked a question that drove President Obama to discuss the gender gap in wages. I suspect the last college paper on comparable worth was written around 1991.

Mitt Romney performed best talking about the economy; it is his comfort zone. Despite an early fumble in which he insisted that he “knows what to do to create jobs” without ever saying what exactly it is that he knows, he later went on to appear knowledgeable about the way an economy works and about international trade. His best moments, though, were exercises in critique. He has mastered the numbers about unemployment, slow growth, poverty rates, and food stamps. It is easier to deconstruct the status quo than to offer a positive case, but such is the privilege of a challenger. Romney took appropriate advantage.  

The president clearly performed better than in the first debate. He was active and landed punches pretty much every time it was possible. But the problem for him is that Romney has already broken through with voters by virtue of the first debate. He easily transcended the caricature of the dumb, incompetent, capitalist monster with no feelings. As Ben Domenech and some others have noted, Romney crossed something of an acceptability threshold in the first contest. Nothing happened in the second debate to take away that forward progress.

The best and strangest moment of the debate came at the end when Romney passionately proclaimed that “Government does not create jobs!  Government does not create jobs!” Amazingly, President Obama affirmed him by agreeing that “Government does not create jobs.” It was perhaps fortunate that my twitter feed reached its limit at that point as my head reeled with the conflicting ideas that Oceania has always been allied with Eastasia and has always been at war with Eastasia.

— Hunter Baker is an associate professor of political science at Union University. He is the author of Political Thought: A Student’s Guide and The End of Secularism

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