Town hall debates are supposed to be a bit less combative than other formats. Because candidates address their answers to real human beings instead of journalists, candidates usually dial back the attacks.
That did not happen on Tuesday. Instead, President Barack Obama, who had been criticized for not challenging Mitt Romney in the first debate, unloaded on the GOP nominee, taking direct aim at Mitt’s claims about a Romney administration. Moreover, he did so not just by attacking, but by sometimes giving Romney enough rope to hang himself. Here are the top five shots landed by Obama during the second debate.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, think about what the governor think about what the governor just said. He said when I took office, the price of gasoline was 1.80 (dollars), 1.86 (dollars). Why is that? Because the economy was on the verge of collapse; because we were about to go through the worst recession since the Great Depression as a consequence of some of the same policies that Governor Romney is now promoting. So it’s conceivable that Governor Romney could bring down gas prices, because with his policies we might be back in that same mess.
President Obama got in a few early shots, describing Romney’s five-point-plan as really a one-point-plan — tax cuts for the rich. But it was during a discussion about energy prices that Obama first began to do serious damage to Romney.
Romney was pushing Obama hard on oil production, arguing essentially that gas prices are high now because we’re not drilling enough, baby. Obama nicely threw the challenge back in Romney’s face, reminding voters that before the collapse of the banking industry, gas prices in the U.S. were routinely over $4.00 a gallon, higher than they are now.
Gas prices fell because the economy fell apart; they’ve risen because the economy is improving, and so demand for energy is higher. With this short exchange, Obama reminded voters that oil production is not the only thing that affects gas prices. More than that, he served notice that this time, he was not going to play around with Romney; he was going to bring the attack to his challenger.
MS. CROWLEY: Governor, let me ask the president something about what you just said. The governor says that he is not going to allow the top 5 percent I believe is what he said to have a tax cut, that it will all even out, that what he wants to do is give that tax cut to the middle class. Settled?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: No, it’s not settled. (Chuckles.) Look, the cost of lowering rates for everybody across the board 20 percent, along with what he also wants to do in terms of eliminating the estate tax, along what he wants to do in terms of corporates changes in the tax code it costs about $5 trillion. Governor Romney then also wants to spend $2 trillion on additional military programs, even though the military’s not asking for them. That’s $7 trillion. He also wants to continue the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. That’s another trillion dollars. That’s $8 trillion.
Now, what he says is he’s going to make sure that this doesn’t add to the deficit, and he’s going to cut middle-class taxes. But when he’s asked, how are you going to do it, which deductions, which loopholes are you going to close, he can’t tell you. The the fact that he only has to pay 14 percent on his taxes when a lot of you are paying much higher you know, he’s already taken that off the board. Capital gains are going to continue to be at a low rate, so we we’re not going to get money that way. We haven’t heard from the governor any specifics, beyond Big Bird and eliminating funding for Planned Parenthood, in terms of how he pays for that.
Now, Governor Romney was a very successful investor. If somebody came to you, Governor, with a plan that said, here; I want to spend 7 (trillion dollars) or $8 trillion, and then we’re going to pay for it, but we can’t tell you until maybe after the election how we’re going to do it, you wouldn’t have taken such a sketchy deal. And neither should you, the American people, because the math doesn’t add up.
No failure this time
Obama was criticized by many on the left for failing, in the first debate, to challenge Romney’s facts. There was no failure this time around. After Mitt Romney did his usual dance, claiming that his tax cuts will not cost anything because, hey, just trust him, Obama pointed out exactly what it was that Romney was saying, and made clear how ludicrous it is that Romney expects voters to accept his tax plan on faith, because obviously, a politician would never lie about stuff.
Obama also did something very canny here. He didn’t just bring up Mitt’s plan to balance the budget by firing Big Bird and Jim Lehrer. He also reminded voters that yes, Mitt Romney has come out against funding Planned Parenthood.
Romney has made the most of his gains since the first debate among women. This was a subtle shot directly at those gains. Romney often describes balancing budgets at Bain and during the Salt Lake City Olympics (although he did so at the latter by getting a government bailout). Romney never denied, however, that he intended to gut Planned Parenthood’s funding, because even for Mitt, that would be a flip too far to flop.3.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know, there are some things where Governor Romney’s different from George Bush. George Bush didn’t propose turning Medicare into a voucher. George Bush embraced comprehensive immigration reform. He didn’t call for self-deportation. George Bush never suggested that we eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood.
So there are differences between Governor Romney and George Bush, but they’re not on economic policy. In some ways, he’s gone to a more extreme place when it comes to social policy, and I think that’s a mistake. That’s not how we’re going to move our economy forward.
Mitt Romney did his darnedest to find places where wouldn’t be like George W. Bush. Of course, those were mostly about things like not exploding the deficit, which Romney will really, truly, seriously not do, you guys, even though he wants to cut revenue even further than Dubya. Obama, however, used his response to highlight, not just places where Romney and Bush agree, but where Bush was objectively more moderate than “moderate” Mitt.
The examples were pitch-perfect. They not only hit Romney for pretending to moderate his position, but did so with policies that would directly and adversely impact women, Hispanics, and seniors. It was a precisely-calibrated attack, one designed to do the maximum damage to Romney’s moderation act.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: The day after the attack [in Benghazi, Libya], Governor, I stood in the Rose Garden, and I told the American people and the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened, that this was an act of terror. And I also said that we’re going to hunt down those who committed this crime. And then a few days later, I was there greeting the caskets coming into Andrews Air Force Base and grieving with the families.
And the suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the secretary of state, our U.N. ambassador, anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own, Governor, is offensive. That’s not what we do. That’s not what I do as president. That’s not what I do as commander in chief.
MS. CROWLEY: Governor, if you want to reply just quickly to this, please.
MR. ROMNEY: Yeah, I I certainly do. I certainly do. I I think it’s interesting the president just said something which is that on the day after the attack, he went in the Rose Garden and said that this was an act of terror. You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack it was an act of terror. It was not a spontaneous demonstration.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Please proceed.
MR. ROMNEY: Is that what you’re saying?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Please proceed, Governor.
MR. ROMNEY: I I 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.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Get the transcript.
MS. CROWLEY: It he did in fact, sir.
This was perhaps the most damaging moment in any of the first three debates, and the damage fell entirely on Romney. Obama had already made a strong statement, taking responsibility as president for the deaths of Americans in Benghazi, pledging to bring the attackers to justice, and shaming Romney for trying to make political hay out of a terror attack.
What Romney did next, however, he did to himself. Romney, buying into right-wing echo chamber logic, immediately tried to get a “gotcha” moment, claiming Obama never called the Benghazi attack a terror attack. Obama could have gotten heated, or argued it. Instead, he let Romney make the accusation, let Romney try to entrap him. He didn’t short-circuit the attack by rising to the bait; he let Romney state that Obama had never said such a thing, when in fact, he clearly had.
In the end, Romney ended up getting called out by the moderator, fact-checked mid-debate. Whatever point Romney had been trying to make evaporated in the moment. Obama looked strong, resolute, presidential. Romney looked petty, inaccurate, and small. One of Obama’s most devastating attacks of the night was a classic rope-a-dope: let your opponent beat himself.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: There’s a fundamentally different vision about how we move our country forward. I believe Governor Romney is a good man. He loves his family, cares about his faith.
But I also believe that when he said behind closed doors that 47 percent of the country considers themselves victims who refuse personal responsibility think about who he was talking about: folks on Social Security who’ve worked all their lives, veterans who’ve sacrificed for this country, students who are out there trying to, hopefully, advance their own dreams, but also this country’s dreams, soldiers who are overseas fighting for us right now, people who are working hard every day, paying payroll tax, gas taxes, but don’t make enough income.
And I want to fight for them. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last four years, because if they succeed, I believe the country succeeds.
Obama never brought up Romney’s “47 percent” line during the first debate, and it looked like he might not do so again. Instead, he saved the line for the final response of the night, one Romney did not get a chance to rebut.
The timing was masterful. Had the line been trotted out mid-debate, Romney no doubt would have argued that he really likes all Americans and just had a slip of the tongue. Instead, Obama had the last message of the night, and that message was the message that has defined the Obama campaign: Romney doesn’t care about average people. Barack Obama does.
We won’t know for a while how Obama’s attacks on Tuesday will impact the campaign. Their impact may be transitory — or may be decisive. Whatever their long-term impact, there’s no question that on Tuesday, Barack Obama showed up to fight for his party, his presidency, and the American people. Whatever the electoral impact, it was gratifying to watch.
Image Credit: Donkey Hotey