Going into the second of three presidential debates, President Obama was looking to reverse his opponent’s momentum and take him down with enough force to change the trajectory of the race. Mitt Romney had to prove that the first debate was no fluke. Although the president was no longer catatonic and managed to make some eye contact this time, he wasn’t able to take down his challenger. In fact, he wasn’t able to win the debate.
For a town hall-style debate, it was quite competitive. On energy, the candidates went toe to toe, Romney arguing that energy permits on federal land have declined and bashing Obama for his stance on coal and the Keystone XL Pipeline. Obama said his stats were right, but back came Romney, citing higher oil prices. At one point, Romney talked Obama back from an interruption and back to his seat.
On taxes, the candidates argued again about Romney’s plan. Romney twice patiently explained how he would lower tax rates but also take away deductions while keeping the tax code’s progressivity. Obama attacked, calling it a “sketchy” deal.
On a question set up for Obama to hit out of the ballpark, Romney on rebuttal touted his own record of hiring women and recounted how hard women have been affected in the Obama economy.
In one of his best moments of the night, Romney explained the differences between him and President George W. Bush, citing differences in the budget and tax code. He went a little populist, criticizing the GOP for being too pro-big business, but he turned a liability into a positive retort. It was perhaps his best answer of the night, dispensing with a DNC talking point.
When asked why things aren’t so bad, Obama defended his record. Romney then delivered a comprehensive indictment of Obama’s record, saying that it was a much worse recovery than the Reagan recovery. He said that the president talks well but that voters now have a record to look at.
On an immigration question, Romney went through his proposals, including “stapling green cards” to the diplomas of students from abroad studying in the United States. He said he would oppose “amnesty.” He castigated Obama for not living up to his promise to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Obama defended his enforcement record and his move to allow children brought here illegally to be able to stay. Obama said he did “everything” he could do, but of course he never submitted a bill, saying that was the House Republicans’ fault.
Romney brought the argument back to Obama’s failure to meet his responsibilities. He brushed aside Obama’s argument that he was the “standard bearer” of his party in 2008, saying he had just gotten beaten by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). A food fight broke out over China investments, with Romney talking over Obama’s interruption, saying that he too had investments in China.
On Libya, Obama ducked on the failure to provide security to our people. He tried to indict Romney for issuing a statement the night the Cairo embassy was attacked. Romney took his time getting to the point but ultimately slammed Obama for going to fundraisers the day after the attack. They then bickered over whether Obama had called it an act of terrorism; Obama said he did. Moderator Candy Crowley said that he did but that it also took five weeks to dispel the notion of a spontaneous demonstration. It was not a clean hit for Romney, yet Obama seemed to implore Crowley to switch gears. It called attention to how uncomfortable the president is in discussing a subject — foreign policy — that was once his strength.
On assault weapons, neither made a pitch for gun control. Romney was able to turn the conversation to families, schools and parents as well as bipartisanship. He also got in a slam on Fast and Furious.
On outsourcing, Romney reverted to explainer-in-chief, making a case for making the United States attractive to business and throwing in some China bashing.
On how they were mischaracterized, Romney assured people that he cares about the whole country. Obama launched a belated attack on the 47 percent.
On style, Romney was generally more commanding throughout and at his best when explaining policies. He faltered on Libya, perhaps surprised to have a layup handed to him. Obama was feistier but at times strained and grasped to intervene.
Crowley was generally competent and kept things moving, but her taking sides on the Libya question was a rare and noticeable breach in moderator etiquette. At times, both candidates tried to push her around, usually to no avail.
Winners: Romney (overall a draw, so he prevents a change in momentum), especially his answers on energy, the Obama record, his pivot to families and schools on the gun question and his answer on hiring women.
Losers: Romney’s Libya answer, the myth of undecided voters (nearly all of the questioners had an ax to grind), Obama supporters who were hoping for a change in momentum.