Just a few notes, on the third and final presidential debate. I’ll give them in (roughly) the order I jotted them in.
Quick bottom line? I think Romney had decided to be Joe Nice. Obama looked much hungrier, needier — sharper. Romney wanted to be accommodating, reassuring. He was sometimes me-too-ist. He was sometimes even milquetoast. Obama wanted to smash Romney.
I think Romney left a whole lot unsaid. Left many jabs untaken. Obama got almost his maximum out of the debate. But Romney, particularly at the end, seemed relaxed, comfortable, happy. Obama seemed a little worked up and grim.
What will the public think? It doesn’t matter what I think. Only what the almighty public thinks. Anyway, my few notes (maybe a few more than a few) . . .
‐I confess, I had never heard of Lynn University (no offense to anyone). This country is chockfull of colleges and universities — part of our strength. A consequence of our freedom, really.
‐Bob Schieffer gives off an air of trustworthiness and disinterestedness — valuable in an anchor, to put it mildly.
‐Obama is called “President Obama.” Fine. Romney is called “Governor Romney.” He hasn’t been governor in ages. I’ve never liked it when these titles linger (as I’ve written for ages). (But don’t no one ever listen to me.)
‐Both men appear in a very good mood — up.
‐Obama applauds the audience, as it applauds him. People do that now. When did it start? In the last ten years? Have people always done it? Yes, but so routinely?
‐Sitting there, Obama is trying to look pleasant. It looks hard.
‐Romney is very lucky to go first — to get first crack at talking. He can set the whole tone.
‐I have no idea what Romney’s talking about. Is he on some kind of medication? Let me go to the transcript:
“We were together at a humorous event a little earlier, and it’s nice to maybe be funny this time not on purpose. We’ll see what happens.
“This is obviously an area of great concern to the entire world and to America in particular, which is to see a — a complete change in the — the — the structure and the — the environment in the Middle East.”
‐He is the first to mention the killing of Osama bin Laden — probably that’s wise.
‐“But we can’t kill our way out of this mess.” The GOP nominee, the anti-killing candidate! (We’ve long been that on abortion, I think . . .)
‐In talking about the death of bin Laden, it would be nice if one of these guys would credit the Navy SEALs. People always seem to forget about that.
‐Romney seems intent on being super-nice. Criticism of president out of bounds?
‐The first answer is so important (as I think I’ve said). I’m afraid Romney’s muffed it.
‐Um, has he decided Libya’s no good for him? No good as an issue? That it has run its course?
‐As I’ve said for at least a year now, reviewing these debates: Boy, does Romney love lists. Just loves them.
‐Romney keeps talking about what America can do to help other nations. My impression is, Americans are no in mood to help other nations. Before, maybe. Later, maybe. But not just now.
‐You think maybe Romney should mention Mali one more time? Mali hasn’t gotten enough mentions? Does Romney forget he has said things? Or does he repeat himself deliberately?
Little of each?
‐Obama is on the attack, like the challenger, like the guy who is behind — like the guy who’s not a comfortable, confident incumbent.
‐As in the second debate, Romney disadvantages himself by using his time to ask Obama questions — meaning that Romney’s time is cut off.
You know what I mean?
‐If Romney can’t bring himself to defend the Iraq War, I wish he’d say at least this: that we should try to make sure the gains we made there are not reversed. Because if they are — the effort wasn’t worth it. Sacrifices were in vain.
As in Viet-you-know-where.
‐Would it be all right to mention we have troops in Germany and Japan, though WWII is over?
‐Years ago — like 30 years ago — someone said that Reagan had a “whisky baritone.” Romney does too.
‐It would be well for Romney to remind people that our secretary of state praised Bashar Assad as a reformer (which he was, for about two seconds, after he took over). (Hillary Clinton praised him as a reformer long after his reform days were over.)
‐Well, they agree on Syria. When Obama says Romney has no ideas different from his own — different from the president’s — he’s right.
‐Oh, so now Obama thinks “America has to stand with democracy”? How about in the summer of 2009, when Iran was exploding?
It was funny: When Iranians massed in the street against their dictatorship — a dictatorship that is our sworn enemy, and the sworn enemy of humanity — Obama did zero. When Egyptians massed in the street against an American ally, Obama was all for them.
Books must be written . . .
You think Obama stood with democracy when he sided with the Chavistas and Castroites in Honduras? The people who were wrecking the constitution?
‐If you don’t know Romney, Obama will tell you about him: He has dedicated his entire life to shipping American jobs overseas.
‐I believe Obama is 6 for 6: He has participated in six presidential debates, and in each one he has said he’s just going to “ask the wealthy to pay a little bit more.” That’ll get us back on track. Boom times, here we come.
‐Romney is on his five-point plan again? In this foreign-policy debate? He spat out that five-point plan about a million times in the first two debates.
I think this is becoming insulting — this repetitiousness. Not thorough, not prudent, not consistent — insulting.
Well, let me trot out my favorite story on this subject. Let me repeat myself, on repetitiousness. This story involves the late Arlen Specter. I’ve told it about a million times. When was the last time? Let me Google. Ah, May of this year. Here’s how I wrote it then:
Years ago, I was sitting in the Senate gallery, for a reason I can’t remember now. Arlen Specter was speaking. George Mitchell wheeled on him, snapping, “You already said that!” Specter replied, cool as a cucumber, “Sometimes we indulge in a little repetition in this body.”
‐Obama? I think he sometimes has a hard time being polite.
‐Let me just say — Romney doesn’t have a damn thing to do with the high test scores of Massachusetts students. That has to do with the nature of Massachusetts students (and families, etc.).
I mean, come on. Yet this is campaign time . . .
‐Mitt, don’t tell them to go to your website. Tell them now. This is your time to explain yourself. The country is owed it. Don’t make them do a type of homework, on the web.
‐Now and then — more than he does — Romney should pause to say, “We’re drowning in debt. We’re at $16 trillion. The budget deficit is over a trillion. The president keeps saying I’m no good at economics. Look at his record. We can do better. So much better. His campaign slogan is ‘Forward.’ His policies are entirely backward, the same old tax-and-spend that has suffocated economies for years, all over.”
‐It would be a good time to trot out what Obama’s secretary of defense, Leon Panetta, says about the looming defense cuts: “devastating.”
‐Oh, Romney’s doing bio! Glad! He does far too little bio, for my taste. He should make more use of his life experience.
“I’m pleased that I’ve balanced budgets. I was in the world of business for 25 years. If you didn’t balance your budget, you went out of business. I went into the Olympics that was out of balance, and we got it on balance, and made a success there. I had the chance to be governor of a state. Four years in a row, Democrats and Republicans came together to . . .”
If Romney repeats anything, he should repeat his bio . . .
‐I’m not sure that condescension and sarcasm work for Obama — as in, “We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.”
‐Romney, speaking of Iran, says “genocide incitation.” I would say “incitement to genocide.” Is “incitation” a word? Yes — I just looked it up. New on me.
‐Romney says, “I would also make sure that their diplomats are treated like the pariah they are around the world.” The point is, Iranian diplomats are not pariahs. And should be.
‐Obama actually appears to be a strong commander-in-chief, sitting on the stage and talking. In action, not the same ballgame, most of the time . . .
‐At a key moment, Romney remembers a very good line from his convention speech. The way he puts it here in the debate is, “Mr. President, America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators.”
(We have sometimes dictated to other nations, of course — rightly and wrongly. And, true, we have freed nations from dictators — Iraq and Afghanistan, for two.)
‐Would it kill Obama and Democrats to acknowledge what Iraq was like under Saddam Hussein? Do they know nothing about the “Republic of Fear”? The “rape rooms,” the children’s prisons, the cutting out of tongues for dissent, the chemical gassings, the feeding of men into industrial shredders, feet first, the better to hear their screams?
Would it kill them? Would it kill Republicans, for that matter?
You get the impression that President Obama doesn’t appreciate what Americans, especially soldiers, have done in Iraq. I appreciate it.
‐Obama is very well prepared to answer on Israel, and his feeling for it.
‐Romney’s repetition — constant repetition — suggests that his cupboard is quite bare. That he has a tiny repertoire of things to say. Which is strange. And not true.
Romney has plenty to say. I’ve heard him!
‐Our guy, maybe forgetting that this is the general, not the primaries, uses “Democrat” as an adjective: “38 Democrat senators.” Cracking me up!
‐At least once, Obama says, “The problem is is that . . .” Come on, Barack, you may think like a Marxist grad student, but you can at least speak English!
‐He’s pretty good when he hits Mitt on flip-flopping. Mitt’s Republican challengers did that, once upon a time.
‐Obama’s story about the little girl and her father and the Twin Towers — effective. Cheap as hell. But effective.
‐Did you catch O’s line about Biden? It came when he was dressing Romney down for being timid on bin Laden or something. “And even some in my own party, including my current vice president, had the same critique as you did.”
‐Obama talks about his “clarity of leadership” — brags about it. I’d love to jump in to say, “Clarity of leadership, huh? Like calling the War on Terror ‘overseas contingency operations’? And calling terrorism itself ‘man-made disaster’?”
I go Walter Mitty big-time, when it comes to debates. (Many of us have that weakness.) (Why the Republican party keeps refusing to nominate me, I’ll never know.)
‐Several times, Romney says, “When I’m president . . .” I wish he’d say, instead, “If I’m president . . .,” or, “If I have the honor of being your president . . .”
‐In the vice-presidential debate, Paul Ryan was superb on Afghanistan. He said, in essence, “Leave, yes — but let’s make sure our gains there are not reversed. Otherwise, what was the point of going in?” Romney does nothing like that. He says, simply, “You’re right, Mr. President — we’re outta there in 2014, period.”
Have Romney and Ryan talked to each other? Coordinated? Yet it’s Romney, not Ryan, who will be president.
Who may be . . .
‐In this debate, Romney does not really sound like his speeches — his several, and excellent, foreign-policy speeches. He’s all me-too-ist. Obama must have thought he was debating a member of his cabinet or something.
‐Obama says, “ . . . after a decade of war, it’s time to do some nation-building here at home.” Exactly what Jon Huntsman said, during the GOP primaries.
‐Schieffer says — I’m pretty sure — “Obama bin Laden.” Will he be prosecuted for hate speech? Branded with the scarlet R?
Human error. People are so unforgiving (in certain circumstances — like when it’s a Republican who needs the forgiving).
‐On the issue of drones, Romney is probably right not to be nuanced. To say, simply, “Yes, yes — drones, good.” And they are good. Very. Except that, as with many things, there are trade-offs: Our drones hit some people who aren’t targeted. And thereby create some resentment.
‐Funny that Obama is not asked about Gitmo.
‐Funny that he is not asked what he meant when he told the Russians, “This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility.” (Medvedev said, “I will transmit this information to Vladimir”!) (Do you love it?)
‐Romney remembers that Obama yanked missile defense from the Poles. He does not remember, apparently, that he yanked missile defense from the Czechs, too.
‐No one talks about KSM and civilian trials and New York and the Pantybomber or anything like that. Obama has been lucky in this debate — his vulnerable spots have been avoided. Even Benghazi. Which is so . . . fresh (as in a wound).
‐I swear, Obama has talked more about democracy and freedom in this debate, an hour and a half, than he has his whole term!
He doesn’t do democracy, freedom, or human rights — until general-election time, I guess.
‐Finally, Romney remembers to quote Panetta, or decides to: “devastating.” Yes.
‐When Romney talks about China and tariffs, I think of the Pat Moynihan phrase: “boob bait for Bubbas.” (Should have been just “boob bait,” or “bait for Bubbas” — but Moynihan probably couldn’t resist the three B’s.) (No, not Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.)
‐Would it kill the two contenders for the presidency to talk a wee bit about human rights, in the context of China? Would it kill the men seeking to represent the representative of freedom and democracy to point out the lack of those things in China? Would it kill the men trying to lead the country of the Statue of Liberty to say something about, you know: liberty?
Would it kill them to say that China is, among other things, a one-party dictatorship with a gulag? Would it kill them to say that the 2010 Nobel peace laureate — President Obama’s fellow laureate — is a political prisoner? Would it kill them to express a little solidarity — just a wee bit — with the thousands or millions who are risking life and limb, in various ways, to gain what we in our own country get to take for granted?
Yes, it would kill them. Because the cruelties of the Chinese Communist Party must not be mentioned, ever.
That is a weird American rule.
(And all honor to those who violate it — Congressmen Chris Smith and Frank Wolf, for two. There are not many more.)
It’s one thing to be president of, say, Finland. But the United States is something else. There is a debt to humanity there (I mean, besides the $16 trillion).
‐When Obama says “America is a Pacific power,” I swear, I heard it first with a small “p”: “a pacific power.”
‐All debate season long, I’ve been dying for Romney to defend himself on the GM charge, the auto-industry charge — or for Ryan to do it for Romney. At last it happens. Mitt defends himself, and well. The idea that Romney was hoping the American car industry would be buried — absurd, defamatory.
‐He, of course, jabs Bush — “It was President Bush that wrote the first checks. I disagreed with that. I said they need — these companies need to go through a managed bankruptcy.”
Nice, putting Obama on the side of the hated — allegedly hated — GWB!
‐Obama: “He’s praised George Bush as a good economic steward and Dick Cheney as somebody who’s — who shows great wisdom and judgment.”
Bush was a much, much better economic steward than Obama. And Cheney does indeed show great wisdom and judgment.
‐Romney’s best moment comes when he executes a neat little pivot. Here’s what happens. Obama says, “What we can’t do is go back to the same policies that got us into such difficulty in the first place. That’s why we have to move forward and not go back.” Romney answers — quickly — “I couldn’t agree more about going forward, but I certainly don’t want to go back to the policies of the last four years. The policies of the last four years have seen incomes in America decline every year for middle-income families,” etc.
That must have hurt. The Big O — no, not Oprah — must have felt that sting. (Well, maybe Oprah too.)
‐I wish Romney would make just a little use of the Obama campaign slogan — of “Forward.” He should mock it a little. Lightly, I mean, not heavy-handedly. Light would be enough.
‐Obama says, “You’ve now heard three debates, months of campaigning, and way too many TV commercials.” I wish Romney had the chance to say — “Yes, including the one that goes, ‘Mitt Romney: Not one of us.’ That is awfully low, Mr. President. What happened to the guy who wanted to bring us together? That’s why it’s time for you to go. That’s one reason, certainly.”
‐Many times in this debate, Obama has called Romney “reckless” — “wrong and reckless.” They’re trying to do to him what Carter tried to do to Reagan, in 1980. Hope it has the same result.
‐Obama has looked agitated, grim — maybe a little desperate. Here at the end, Romney looks relaxed, confident — happy. Ready to be president. Looking forward to it.
‐Romney says, “The president’s path means 20 million people out of work, struggling for a good job. I’ll get people back to work with 12 million new jobs.” I think, “What about the other 8 million?”
‐Evidently, there has been a decision in the Romney-Ryan campaign not to ask, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
‐Romney says, “Washington is broken.” Every candidate in the history of mankind — well, certainly in American history — has said that.
‐Romney says, “We’ve been blessed by having a nation that’s free and prosperous, thanks to the contributions of the greatest generation.” Does he mean the World War II generation? Well, there have been more generations — more contributors — than that. Like the Founding generation.
‐A mention of the Constitution would be wise in this closing statement, I think.
‐Romney talks about the “torch” — “They’ve held a torch for the world to see — the torch of freedom and hope and opportunity. Now it’s our turn to take that torch.”
If Joe Biden were here, he’d say, “Oh, so you think you’re Jack Kennedy now?”
‐Romney’s closing statement is pretty strong. I wouldn’t say “I’ll lead you,” and I don’t think Romney means to say it: those words, “I’ll lead you” (even if they are followed by “in an open and honest way”). But, all in all, a pretty strong closing statement.
‐I think Obama out-talked Romney — was the better talker. Romney sometimes acted like he didn’t want to debate Obama. But I think Romney was better in demeanor, if you will. I think Romney probably helped himself more than Obama did.
But who can know the hearts and minds of the American people? La donna è mobile, and the American people can be fairly fickle too.
(Incidentally, talking about our four dead in Libya, Romney said, “Our hearts and minds go to them.” He did not mean to put it just that way. But one understood.)
‐Well, to heck with debating — debating, shmebating. How about governing? I hope Romney gets to become president. I think he’ll be very, very good. Have thought so for years. The times are in need of a turn-around. Romney is a turn-around artist. And a very decent man. Good man.
Oh, I hope he gets the chance. I think this is his hour.
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.