Tuesday’s town hall was not a cordial debate. President Obama appeared to have as much warm fellow-feeling for Mitt Romney as you have for anyone with Mitt Romney’s net worth who is trying to take your job in this economy. Mitt seemed to return the favor. “You’ll get your turn,” he told the president, at one point.
Yes, it was a town hall, a forum in which the candidates are theoretically supposed to answer questions from a gaggle of undecided voters. But the voters seemed perfectly happy to sit there and watch the two of them fight it out. The audience even forgot to be undecided and cheered loudly when Candy Crowley offered a fact-check to Mitt Romney on Libya.
“He was right in the main. I just think he picked the wrong word,” Crowley said afterwards on CNN. That was Mitt Romney’s debate in a nutshell.
It turns out that wording is very important. Precise wording. If you miss a spot, you’re in danger. You cannot ask the genie for immortal life and forget to specify that you want youth as well, or you will have a very unpleasant next millennium, especially given the current state of health care. And on those moments, Obama fared better.
But both candidates had their moments. They spent most of the time baiting one another or gazing wistfully at one another as the other answered. This is a debate skill that Romney has long perfected, but Obama was catching up fast.
The words were the trouble.
The Internet continued its tradition of seizing one remark of Mitt Romney’s in its talons and flying away with it into the surreal ether. Mitt Romney’s attempt to answer a question about inequality in the workforce by talking about his own efforts to involve women in his administration, an effort that led him to seek “binders full of women” from women’s groups, mutated horribly and spawned a meme.
“Binders full of women!” everyone bawled. “No way! No how! Get that hole-puncher away!” Never mind the rest of the answer, about growing the whole economy. The entire Internet is full of Binders Full of Women. There is a parody twitter with 30,000 followers, a tumblr, and a crammed hashtag.
President Obama kept talking about green energy at times when only Al Gore would have thought it was entirely relevant. But he delivered a startlingly good answer on Libya, a missed opportunity for Romney (“a missed opportunity for Romney” is a phrase that describes much of Romney’s response to this crisis). Romney even bungled the terror question.
ROMNEY: I want to make sure we get that for the record because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.
OBAMA: Get the transcript.
CROWLEY: It -- it -- it -- he did in fact, sir. So let me -- let me call it an act of terror...
OBAMA: Can you say that a little louder, Candy?
CROWLEY: He -- he did call it an act of terror. It did as well take -- it did as well take two weeks or so for the whole idea there being a riot out there about this tape to come out. You are correct about that.
ROMNEY: This -- the administration -- the administration indicated this was a reaction to a video and was a spontaneous reaction.
CROWLEY: It did.
But the damage was done.
It wasn’t a bad debate for Romney. But President Obama was awake this time, if not entirely polite. On a “Can You Believe I Have To Listen To This?” scale from 1 to Biden, he was a steady 3 — as was Romney, who was more pugnacious, if not more successful, than before.
When someone asked about assault rifles, Romney gave the kind of answer that you give when you have been asked a question whose answer you do not have. You are asked about assault rifles and cannot talk about assault rifles, so you talk about something else instead, like the importance of family. And why not? The audience seemed to like it. Sooner or later, it comes down to faith, family, and support for the troops, as Billy Joel should have said.
And the Libya question, especially with Crowley’s admission that Romney was right in substance if not technically correct, may live to fight another day. Such wanton, random specificity! It’s not enough that the moderator understands what you are getting at. It’s not enough that the talking point you were loading was a really exciting talking point! It’s the words you used. Words, words, words! That was the trouble. Words like “binders.”
Some memes are too good to contextualize. And the fight for context goes both ways. One man’s “substantially true remark”is another’s bald-faced lie. You have to decide.
That’s one of the reasons I continue to be bewildered by these undecided voters. But what a show they got.