Just a few notes on the second presidential debate — most of them sour, I’m sure. Will give them in the order in which I jotted them, while watching. (A few may be out of order.)
Warning: These notes are not for Republicans who wish to feel good about the debate! (Though we Republicans can certainly feel good about the election.)
(Not that that’s a prediction — I don’t do predictions, except under duress. Or at the faintest invitation.)
Anyway . . .
‐You can see it at the handshake: Both men are tall. What is it about height and the presidency? Essays have been written on it, I know.
‐These “townhall” debates are often nauseating. There are often questioners who ask about their personal problems. Who ask about issues that are not particularly presidential or federal.
People ask, in a variety of ways, “What are you going to do for me?” A candidate never answers, “Uphold the Constitution, oppose and defeat this country’s enemies, and help keep you free.”
Never. That would never fly in Oprah’s America.
In any event, the format of a debate should not matter much. Neither should the questions, really. The candidates will find occasions to say what they want to say — and probably even what they should say — regardless. If you can’t work around the format or the questions, you’re probably not cut out for politics.
‐It would be nice if Romney didn’t say “less jobs.” And “the reason is because” — over and over again.
‐Romney is faulted for not giving specifics in these debates. And the faulters are right. To my recollection, Romney was pretty good about specifics during the Republican primary debates — on housing and all that. And the primaries are not necessarily a time for specifics.
That five-point plan of his is sounding cheesier and cheesier to me.
‐So, that questioner “Jeremy,” who wants a job? Jeremy the student? Romney says to him, “When you come out in 2014 — I presume I’m going to be president — I’m going to make sure you get a job. Thanks, Jeremy. Yeah, you bet.”
Phony baloney. A phony-baloney politician. You can’t guarantee that guy a job. Nor should you. What are you thinking, Mitt? Is this East Germany? Are you the cheesiest politician in history?
No, you’re a superbly able and clear-thinking man. Try to make sure people know it!
‐Obama is very, very strong. Firing on all cylinders. He’s saying the same things he said in the first debate — but more crisply, more commandingly, and more creatively.
My guy is stumbling, breathy, shallow, and repetitious.
‐Obama always says he’s simply “asking the wealthy to pay a little bit more.” He said it throughout the 2008 debates. He says it in a tone that says, “What’s so unreasonable about that? Can’t they be patriotic? Can’t they help the country out, by kicking in a few more tax dollars?”
Romney is capable of giving very strong answers to this (as to almost everything). Tonight, he doesn’t really bring it.
‐Ever since the primaries, I’ve disliked it when Romney brings up this “12 million” figure. He says his five-point plan will lead to 12 million new jobs. Why the figure isn’t 11 million or 13 million or 11,683,022, I don’t know.
‐In this debate, he uses a phrase I haven’t heard before — “college-level job.” He promises college graduates not just jobs, but “college-level jobs.”
Ay, caramba. Jobs commensurate with our education? How do we measure that?
‐As we saw in the primary debates, sometimes Romney gets rattled — gets rattled in a hurry. Bit of a glass jaw. He starts talking real fast, stumbling over his words, not able to get them out, too excited, too rattled. He gets snippy and fussy, at opponents and moderators (if there’s a difference).
In the primaries, when he controlled that, he was good or great. When he did not, he looked petulant, schoolyardish, immature. Tinny. Remember his prissy little spats with Rick Perry?
We all got problems. And Romney has fewer than most. He’s virtually superhuman. Still, we all ain’t runnin’ for president.
‐Romney has a really good answer on the GM charge — the charge that he was willing for GM and the entire auto industry just to up and die. I’ve heard him give it, many times. Why he doesn’t give it tonight — when it’s key to give it — I don’t know.
(One reason I’m so hard on him, of course, is that I’m so pro-him — and pulling so hard for him, and counting on him so heavily.) (Every candidate carries the burden of his fans’ hopes and expectations for him.)
‐Obama has mastered the art — the kind of dirty art — of making himself sound patriotic, in his answers, while making his opponent sound unpatriotic. He has the national interest at heart. Pity the other guy doesn’t.
‐Romney brings up the North Dakota oil boom, which is wise. He notes the administration’s hostility to it, which is also wise. But he does all this in a clipped, inarticulate, confusing way. Many viewers must have scratched their heads.
I did some reporting on North Dakota for National Review earlier this year. A snippet, from the resulting piece:
Many North Dakotans were taken aback when the Obama Justice Department brought suit against Continental Resources and other oil companies last year. The charge: A handful of birds — between 25 and 30 — had died in “reserve pits.” The companies were prosecuted under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. A district-court judge threw the suit out with little ado. In the bargain, he listed some of the ways in which birds die: including flying into wind turbines. That kills an estimated 33,000 a year. Why pick on oil? Why should wind be sacred and oil the bad guy?
‐I wonder: When two candidates are at odds on facts — not opinions but facts — what is the public to think?
‐As Romney struggles and snips, the audience actually laughs at him. Painful to observe. Obama is the far cooler guy in the room: “cooler” as in more level-headed, and “cooler” as in, you know — hipper.
‐While Romney is speaking, Obama looks ready to pounce, when it’s his turn. He looks loaded for bear. He looks in control. “I got this.” He looks at Romney almost with pity: “You poor bastard, you’re no match for me tonight. You brought less game than last time. And I brought heaps more.”
‐I wish Romney would pause, every now and then, to say, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re $16 trillion in debt. Our budget deficit is over a trillion. We’re going downhill fast. Barack Obama is speaking very well tonight. Sounds great. But, you know, he’s been president for four years. And our problems have gotten worse. He has no new ideas for the next four years. He’s had his chance. He’s blown it. Time for a change.”
Romney does this, of course — to a degree. So, what do I wish? Maybe that he’d do it . . . as well as he is capable of.
‐Have I understood correctly? Is Romney’s answer on female equality in the workplace something like quotas?
‐Once more, Obama cites his grandmother: “She was smart as a whip.” And a typical white person, of course. Are white people typically smart as whips?
‐Obama and other Democrats always say we Republicans care only about the wealthiest — we look out for the wealthy few. Not only is the charge a lie, it also contains this absurdity: How could you run for office by appealing only to the top few? How could one ever win? Republicans, like other politicians, want to get elected, right?
An exasperating subject.
‐Obama is confusing me, because he talks so much about Planned Parenthood, and the funding of it: Is Planned Parenthood a government agency? Or is it a private organization?
I believe Obama talks more about funding Planned Parenthood than about funding the U.S. military. Which is a government organization, so far as I know.
‐Listening to Obama, I think of something Gene Genovese, the late historian, told me last year: “The first time I laid eyes on this guy — I heard him make a speech — I said, ‘He’s a demagogue.’ One more. More skillful than most.” (For my piece on Genovese, “Up from Leftism,” go here.)
‐Romney gives me a flashback when he says, “Any investments I have over the last eight years have been managed by a blind trust.” In 1988, Democrats and their allies in the media — how many times have people like me written that phrase! — kept saying that George Bush had “put his manhood in a blind trust.”
Just one of the calumnies that sterling man endured.
‐Oddly enough, when Obama talks about foreign policy, he sounds like General Patton.
‐Romney is accused — scaldingly accused — of trying to make political hay out of disaster in the Arab world. Our dead ambassador and all. The guy just does not defend himself. And there’s an excellent — well-nigh unanswerable — defense.
‐Painful, painful to see Romney rebuked — dressed down — by Obama, on Libya. Painful to see him lectured that way. He could say a million things in answer — in counter-rebuke. In counter-lecture. He says none of them.
‐Romney looks shifty when he won’t give a direct answer to a question about AK-47s.
‐Very, very dangerous is Obama’s suggestion — repeated suggestion — that poor education and other disadvantages will lead to gun violence. Many, many people in this world have had disadvantages — disadvantages far more severe than those of modern Americans — without turning criminal.
‐When Romney hears a question, he’ll say, “Great question, important question.” Sometimes they are. But often this is just condescension.
‐I don’t like the first-name business. The questioner is “Jeremy” or “Lorraine” or “Mike” or “Betty.” And the questioner is addressing “Governor Romney” or “Mr. President.” That is unequal. It ought to be even-steven. Citizens are talking to fellow citizens. This is not a matter of lords and serfs.
If someone — particularly someone my age or older — called me “Governor Nordlinger,” I would call him “Mr. Smith” (or whatever) or “sir” or “ma’am.”
Do you know what I’m saying? I’d say a lot more, but I’m rushing, and this is not the place anyway . . .
‐When Obama made his charges about contraceptives — Republicans want to keep them out of women’s hands — that was a very good time for Romney to bring up the issue of religious freedom. Freedom of conscience. But no . . .
‐As I noted during the primaries, Romney is very, very big on “different than.”
‐When Romney runs through his list of differences with George W. Bush, he says he supports small business — that is, he, Romney, supports small business.
Gee, George W.: Bet you didn’t know you didn’t support small business! The things you can larn, watchin’ television . . .
‐One of our citizen-questioners says, “What do you believe is the biggest misperception that the American people have about you as a man and a candidate?” This is a Barbara Walters question (as I think of them). And don’t let me snark: It’s a good and useful question.
‐A word about the moderator? When the moderators for 2012 were announced, I was pleased to see Candy Crowley among them. She has always had a reputation of being fair to conservatives — fairer than your average “MSM-er,” by a lot. I remember the George W. Bush people saying this, way back in 2000.
Her intervention in the Libya exchange between Obama and Romney? Her coming down on Obama’s side? Not her finest hour — to put it as mildly as possible. Way too mildly.
I mean, if you’re going to intervene, which maybe you shouldn’t: At least be accurate.
Obama’s line was excellent, by the way — memorable, stylish: “Can you say that a little louder, Candy?”
‐Romney has not yet brought up the stimulus and “shovel-ready jobs” — and Obama’s attitude toward those jobs. His flippancy. Remember? He joked about the nonexistence of those jobs. Romney would do well to remind people of this, in some debate.
‐Obama has not yet brought up Romney’s “47 percent” — but Romney does, in a way: “I care about 100 percent of the American people. I want 100 percent of the American people to have a bright and prosperous future.”
At his next turn at bat, Obama lays into him on the 47 percent. Has Romney reminded him of the issue? Did Romney go first on it in order to preempt the president?
‐Romney repeats himself a lot in this debate — repeats what he said in the last debate, and repeats what he has already said in this one. Over and over. My question: Is this deliberate? A debating and campaigning tactic? Or is it unintentional? Is Romney’s cupboard simply too bare, when it comes to debating points? Over and over, he says the same lines in the same way, like an actor on the stage, doing a nightly show. But if you’re a politician, and your audience has been there already — you gotta mix it up.
In the 1988 debate, Dan Quayle repeated a list of three, over and over. It got to be a matter of mockery. (The Kennedy thing aside.) In the 1992 debate, of course, he was much better. Infinitely better. Beat up Al Gore, in my view.
‐Obama loves to remind people that his grandfather served in World War II. I don’t blame him. It does several things for him.
‐Republican candidates almost never use that 19th-century word “self-reliance.” It is a Horatio Alger word. And it scares the bejesus out of many modern Americans.
But Obama uses it! “I believe that the free-enterprise system is the greatest engine of prosperity the world’s ever known. I believe in self-reliance and individual initiative, and risk-takers’ being rewarded.”
Obama as general-election candidate and Obama as president are two very, very different men.
‐In this debate, I think Romney won a couple of rounds. And I think Obama won all the rest. I think Obama clobbered our guy. It doesn’t matter what I think, of course. It matters only what the public thinks. You never know.
I should say this, too — I’ve said it before: As a rule, I’m very, very tough on our guys. My problem is, I think the other side has virtually no case. I think “the facts of life are conservative,” as Thatcher said. (Didn’t she say that?) I believe we should trounce the other side, habitually — which is unreasonable, of course.
Also, I’m always complaining that the other side has good talkers while we’re stuck with stumblebums (verbal stumblebums). Romney is one of the best talkers we’ve ever had, as presidential nominee. I do believe he was off his game on this occasion.
I’m pretty sure I know this: that Romney would be a much better president than he was a debater, this time; and that Obama, with a second term, would continue to be a much worse president than he was a debater, this time. Romney, I believe, would be an excellent president: a pivotal, turn-us-around, get-us-our-mojo-back one. Let’s hope he gets the chance.
And I hope he apologizes to George W., for implying that our 43rd president was against, or indifferent to, small business. W. spent too much, sure. Particularly in the first term. He did it mainly, a friend of mine was just saying, to keep his war coalition together. But, compared with the 44th president, he was positively stingy.
In any case, I think he is a better man than almost all his critics, Democratic and Republican. And I’ll see you later.
To order Jay Nordlinger’s new book, Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World, go here. To order his collection Here, There & Everywhere, go here.