The subject this time is foreign policy, and like the first two debates, there are rules the moderator – Bob Schieffer of CBS News – is supposed to enforce. The format calls for six 15-minute segments, each devoted to one international topic. Mr. Schieffer himself got to pick these subjects, and they are as follows:
• America’s role in the world.
• The changing Middle East and the new face of terrorism, Part 1.
• The changing Middle East and the new face of terrorism, Part 2.
• The rise of China and tomorrow’s world.
OBAMA VS. ROMNEY 101: 4 ways they differ on China
Schieffer is supposed to open each segment with a question and then allow two minutes apiece for the candidates to respond. After this, he’s supposed to use the balance of the 15-minute segment to “facilitate a discussion on the topic,” according to the Commission on Presidential Debates.
Of course, this isn’t going to be Foreign Policy 101 with a bunch of students who don’t want to answer. “What should we do about Hezbollah? Mr. President? Governor Romney? Bueller? Anyone?”
Facilitating a discussion will be the least of moderator Schieffer’s problems. If the first two debates are any indication, it’s containing the discussion that’s going to be the challenge. Generally speaking, the first rule of political debates is to not answer the question that’s been asked, but answer the question you wish had been asked. Given that, we bet “Libya” comes up within seconds of Mr. Romney beginning his first response, as he steers the conversation to his campaign’s accusations that the administration mishandled the situation surrounding the Benghazi attack, which killed US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Mr. Obama is sure to have a prepared response to this, and it could be down the rabbit hole from there unless Schieffer gets them to broaden the horizon of the discussion.
If any reporter can do that, though, he might be the one. He’s old school, like Jim Lehrer, the moderator for the first debate. This means he believes the point is for the candidates to talk, not for him to strut.
How old school is he? He covered the tragic assassination of President Kennedy as a young reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1963. (He often tells the tale of how he gave Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother a ride to the Dallas police station after she called the paper looking for a lift. Less often he gets around to adding the fact that he had to borrow a car to do it because his own, a Triumph TR4 sports car, wasn’t really suitable for the job.)
But Schieffer’s also a modern TV personality, like second debate moderator Candy Crowley. As host of CBS’s “Face the Nation,” he’s comfortable in cutting interviewees off and trying to keep them on point.
“You’re a ref and you don’t want to have one guy filibuster,” Schieffer said in The Palm Beach Post interview. “You want both people to get an opportunity to state their position.”
Does this mean the third debate will have a tone between the freewheeling first and the Crowley-controlled second? We can only wait and see. Unlike many Washington reporters, Schieffer is liked and respected by folks on both sides of the political aisle, so neither Democrats nor Republicans have groused about him in advance of the fight in Florida.
A native Texan, Schieffer graduated from Texas Christian University and served a stint as a communications officer in the Air Force. After his run as a print reporter in Fort Worth, he jumped to TV and served as a local anchor before catching on with CBS in 1969.
In Washington he’s covered the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, and Congress. He credits his long-term survival in a cutthroat business to all the intramural politics he avoided while out of the office covering his beats.
His 2004 memoir, “This Just In: What I Couldn’t Tell You on TV,” is a breezy and informative look at the news business that’s well worth your time if you’re interested in the subject.
IN PICTURES: Campaign photography – the art of standing out
That’s a central question bearing on whether President Obama is weak in foreign policy, as GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney charges. A clear picture of the behind-the-scenes action here may not emerge until histories are written years hence. But new reports on the eve of the third and final presidential debate suggest that at least some of the cause of the delay stemmed from the nature of intelligence community reports to the president on the tragedy.
Here’s what we know at the moment: On Sept. 16, US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice appeared on five TV talk shows and generally ascribed the attack to the ad hoc action of mobs infuriated by a crude anti-Islamic video made in the US. She said evidence gathered to that point indicated no premeditation on the part of attackers, but she did add that “extremists” might have escalated the violence once it began.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Ms. Rice took this line because that’s what the CIA was saying at the time. For more than a week, the daily briefing prepared for the president by the intelligence community held that the assault grew out of a spontaneous demonstration, write Journal reporters Adam Enous and Siobhan Gorham.
“The CIA was consistent from Sept. 13 to Sept. 21 that the attack evolved from a protest,” they write.
CIA analysts began to doubt this conclusion as more evidence about the confusing situation worked its way up through the intelligence chain. Lower level intelligence officials suspected the assertion about protests was outdated even as Rice was making the rounds of her Sunday talk show appearances, according to a story by reporter Eric Schmitt in The New York Times.
Given that the CIA began with only sketchy reports of what had happened in Benghazi, and that US operatives arrived on scene days later to sift evidence, it may be only natural that the agency’s story has shifted, according to intelligence officials quoted in the Times story.
As early as Sept. 20, the agency concluded that there hadn’t been a protest in Benghazi prior to the attack. But the daily brief for the president, the source from which top officials derive their view of what’s going on in the world, didn’t change to reflect this until the morning of Sept. 22.
By Sept. 27, the White House had changed its talking points on this sensitive issue. That day Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta at a Pentagon news conference described the killings as a “terrorist attack."
Since then, Republicans have been adamant that White House was either confused about the incident or trying to mislead the American people.
“You don’t have a riot with heavy weapons that goes on for seven hours in a preplanned fashion,” said Senator Graham.
If the White House truly believes that it was misled by CIA reports, it needs to fire somebody, said Graham. He further indicated that videos of the attack and news reports quickly indicated that it would have been difficult for the killings to have been the work of a mob, and that the White House should have taken these sources of information into account.
Obama officials have countered that they are describing the situation as they know it in a transparent manner to Congress and the public, and that the investigation into the tragedy is still unfolding.
“We’re getting to the bottom of it. And we need to work this investigation through. It’s really important that we not politicize the process,” said Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter on NBC’s “Today” show Oct. 22.
With the third and final presidential debate set to take place later Monday, self-promoter-extraordinaire and longtime Obama antagonist Donald Trump made an early morning appearance on “Fox and Friends,” claiming he had “something very, very big” to reveal concerning the president.
Naturally, Mr. Trump would not give any hints as to what this supposed bombshell might be. He only said that he would make an announcement about it sometime soon, “probably on Wednesday.”
But he promised it was big. Really big. Like, “bigger than anybody would know.” He predicted his Fox hosts “will cover it in a very big fashion.”
Of course, Trump has done this before: In the run-up to the Republican National Convention, he promised a “big surprise,” as well. In the end, the only surprise there was the appearance by actor Clint Eastwood – and we all know how that turned out. (It was later revealed that Trump had taped a video of himself “firing” the president, but when the convention was shortened by a day due to weather, the video tragically got cut.)
This time, the obvious speculation regarding Trump’s announcement is that it may have something to do with the “birther” controversy. Trump has, after all, taken on the mantle of most-prominent-conspiracy-theorist claiming Obama may not have been born in the United States. Last year, he famously made a big show of hiring a team of private investigators to look into the matter.
But even if all Trump is planning to reveal is that he’s inviting Obama to appear on “Celebrity Apprentice” – well, we suppose we've got to give him points on the psychological warfare front.
You see, on the eve of a big – and, by most accounts, critical – debate, it’s not an uncommon tactic for each side to try to “get in the other guy’s head.” Announcing that you’ve got something damaging on your opponent – but refraining from saying what, exactly, it might be – could be seen as an attempt to do just that. In this case, a clumsy, transparently obvious attempt, via an individual whose support the Romney campaign has not exactly welcomed with open arms. But an attempt, nonetheless.
Some Democrats actually think this may have been what happened to the president in the run-up to the first debate. As you may recall, the conservative Daily Caller website teased (via Drudge and Fox News) the unveiling of a “bombshell video” that turned out to be a five-year-old tape of Obama speaking to a mostly black audience at Hampton University. In the speech, Obama indicated he thought the slow response to Hurricane Katrina had been influenced by race, and he gave a shout-out to the controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Most media outlets wound up dismissing the tape as old news – but the day-long buildup to the video's release was, as the Huffington Post's Jason Linkins put it, "a work of genius."
And some pundits later speculated that all the racially tinged back-and-forth over the video may have, somehow, subconsciously influenced Obama into giving a more subdued appearance at the first debate.
Now, the president is almost certainly less likely to be affected by Trump's attempts to get under his skin – since, at this point, it's practically become a regular occurrence. And Trump’s gambit may even backfire – as has much of the “birther” talk throughout the campaign – by pushing moderate independents toward the Democrats. Still, The Donald's out there trying.
This question arises, of course, because of an unusual moment from Tuesday night’s presidential debate at Hofstra University in New York. Asked a question about his position on pay equity for women, Mr. Romney zigged and talked about encouraging gender equity in Bay State government jobs after he won the governor’s chair in 2002.
“I had the chance to pull together a cabinet and all the applicants seemed to be men,” said Romney on Tuesday. “And I went to my staff and I said, ‘How come all the people for these jobs are all men?’ ”
After his staff said the résumés reflected people with qualifications for the posts in question, Romney pushed them to expand their search, according to his debate-night account.
“I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks?’ ” said Romney. “And [they] brought us whole binders full of women. I was proud of the fact that after I staffed my cabinet and my senior staff that the University of New York in Albany did a survey of all 50 states and concluded that mine had more women in senior leadership positions than any other state in America.”
Now, we’re not going to evaluate “women in binders” as an Internet meme that’s got Twitter in a twist. Lots of other people have done that. Nor are we going to talk about the political importance of the women’s vote in general.
Instead we’re going to try to evaluate what’s known about those binders. Because they were real.
Romney wasn’t the driving force behind their compilation, however. He misspoke about that. Instead, the instigator here was a nonprofit group called the Massachusetts Government Appointments Project, or “MassGAP” for short.
MassGAP is a nonpartisan coalition of 25 women’s groups dedicated to what it sees as the underrepresentation of women in top appointed jobs in Massachusetts government, according to its website. In 2002, it approached the gubernatorial campaigns of Republican Mitt Romney and Democrat Shannon O’Brien and asked them to commit to a series of steps intended to boost female representation in top ranks.
“Both campaigns made a commitment to this process,” according to a MassGAP statement on the “binders” brouhaha.
After Romney won, MassGAP set up committees for each post in the new administration, and recruited and interviewed potential female applicants. It compiled this information in binders and sent it along to Romney’s transition team. You can even see a picture of one of them at the link for the MassGAP statement, above.
“To be perfectly clear, Mitt Romney did not request those résumés,” said Jesse Mermell, former MassGAP executive director, during a conference call arranged by the Democratic Party.
But he did use them. He reached out to business contacts for possible female appointees, as well, said his lieutenant governor, Kerry Healey, in an Associated Press interview. Before the 2002 vote, women accounted for about 30 percent of appointed senior-level Massachusetts government positions. By 2004, 42 percent of new Romney appointments were women, according to MassGAP.
And Romney’s right that a 2004 study by the State University of New York found Massachusetts to be first in the nation in the percentage of women in top government jobs.
That study might be a bit misleading in that the overall numbers of appointive positions in the Bay State are quite small compared to, say, California, or New York itself. The total number of women at the top in these states’ governments was quite likely larger, even if the percentage of women was smaller.
And Romney’s appointment of women to open posts declined as his term went along. From 2004 to 2006, the percentage of newly appointed women in senior jobs dropped to 25 percent, according to MassGAP figures.
What do women want?
Aside from not being relegated to binders (just kidding!), the answer to that question, it seems, may very well determine the outcome of the presidential election. And so far, President Obama and Mitt Romney are banking on very different sets of priorities held by the women they’re hoping to win – by which we mean primarily blue-collar, suburban so-called “waitress moms,” who are economically strapped but also tend to be socially moderate on issues like abortion.
Mr. Romney is hoping that those women care, first and foremost, about jobs and the economy. Although he’s been trying to modulate his stance on issues like abortion, saying in a recent interview that he did not know of any anti-abortion legislation he would push for, he’s really urging women to put so-called “women’s issues” on the back burner and vote instead for the candidate they think would do the most for the economy and job creation.
Tellingly, a new Romney ad features a mom talking into the camera about how Romney “doesn’t oppose contraception at all,” and believes abortion “should be an option in cases of rape, incest, or to save the mother’s life.” She continues, as the camera shows her kids doing their homework: “This issue is important to me. But I’m more concerned about the debt our children will be left with. I voted for President Obama last time. But we just can’t afford four more years.”
Mr. Obama, on the other hand, is counting on those “women’s issues” being a top priority for many female voters. And he routinely makes the point that they often are economic issues – equal pay is clearly a pocketbook matter, and paying for your own birth control, if insurance won’t cover it, is a not-insignificant expense for many women.
As for abortion, well, the Obama campaign has a new ad out responding to the above-mentioned Romney ad by showing footage of Romney in a GOP primary debate, being asked: “If Roe v. Wade was overturned and Congress passed a federal ban on all abortions, would you sign it?” Romney responded: “I’d be delighted to sign that bill.” The spot concludes: “Ban all abortions? Only if you vote for him.”
The question is, which argument is more likely to succeed?
According to a recent Gallup poll of women voters in 12 swing states, Obama may have an edge: When asked what they viewed as the “most important issue for women in this election,” the top response by far was abortion, at 39 percent. That was followed by jobs (19 percent), health care (18 percent), the economy (13 percent), and equal pay (15 percent).
However, it’s worth noting that it's unclear which side of the abortion issue those women who chose it as "most important" fall on. And since the question specifically asked women about the most important issue “for women,” not just the most important issue overall, it may have directed respondents to think more specifically about “women’s issues” than they otherwise would have. A previous Gallup poll asking women which issues they viewed as most important found health care was the top response, followed by the deficit and the national debt.
All of which probably means the verdict is still out.
For most of this campaign cycle, rocker Bruce Springsteen had indicated he would sit this one out. He had campaigned for President Obama in 2008, and for John Kerry in 2004, and he told The New Yorker over the summer that he felt whatever political capital he had “diminishes the more often you do it.”
But sometime in the past few weeks, he changed his mind – a sign, perhaps, that the race has gotten too close for comfort. On Thursday, the Boss will appear in the all-important swing state of Ohio with former President Bill Clinton, and then head to Iowa, another critical battleground.
He’s also drawing attention for an open letter he posted on his website explaining why he’s supporting Mr. Obama.
Now, as we’ve written before, we’re skeptical about just how much impact celebrity endorsements really have – and in general, we tend to sympathize with those saying, “who cares what one famous person thinks?”
But Springsteen’s letter is an interesting read – if only because it seems to encapsulate the struggle that many Obama supporters seem to be having this cycle. While it’s a clear endorsement, it comes across as an almost heavy-hearted one. He writes:
“This presidential election is different than the last one because President Obama has a four-year record to run on. Last time around, he carried with him a tremendous amount of hope and expectations. Unfortunately, due to the economic chaos the previous administration left him with, and the extraordinary intensity of the opposition, it turned into a really rough ride.”
A really rough ride. Not exactly the phrasing the Obama campaign would have chosen, but he gets points for honesty. And in a way, the letter expresses a kind of clear-eyed realism. Not only have the past four years been a struggle – but what the president seems to be promising for the next four often sounds like a continuing battle for more incremental progress and hard-fought gains.
To be sure, Springsteen credits the president for a number of accomplishments – from the Affordable Care Act to the auto bailout to the killing of Osama bin Laden. And, without naming Mitt Romney, he makes it clear he believes Mr. Romney would be a far worse alternative – particularly when it comes to the issue of income inequality. “Right now, there is a fight going on to help make this a fairer and more equitable nation,” Springsteen writes. “For me, President Obama is our best choice to get us and keep us moving in the right direction.”
But even that line tacitly acknowledges that not enough has been done on that point so far. Unlike the giddy sense of possibility that defined Obama’s 2008 campaign, this time around his supporters have few illusions. If they rode into office on a wave of “hope” and inspiration, this time around, it's more like they're plodding ahead in a gritty, albeit determined, slog.
As Springsteen writes: “We’re still living through very hard times but justice, equality and real freedom are not always a tide rushing in. They are more often a slow march, inch by inch, day after long day.”
When did President Obama label as “terror” the attack that killed the US ambassador to Libya? This issue has become one of the most contentious to arise out of Tuesday night’s presidential debate at Hofstra University. That’s because it involved a tough question, a heated response, a lunge counterattack, and then intervention by controlling authority. (It sounds Shakespearean when we summarize it that way, doesn’t it? As if it’s a lost scene from “Hamlet” or “King Lear.”)
This dramatic exchange began when moderator Candy Crowley asked Mr. Obama whether Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was responsible for any US failures that led to the assault in Benghazi, which killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Obama replied – as he had to in that circumstance – that as president the buck stops with him.
Then he added this: “The day after the attack ... I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people and the world that we were 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.”
After a few more lines from Obama, Mitt Romney pounced. Pacing the stage like a big fish that thinks it’s spotted a tasty herring, the former Massachusetts governor repeated Obama’s assertion that he’d used the word “terror” in the Rose Garden.
“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,” said Mr. Romney.
Snap. Just like that the herring turned into a lure, and Romney got caught.
“Get the transcript,” said Obama.
Moderator Crowley, who had access to the transcript in question, stammered out this: “He did in fact sir ... call it an act of terror.”
“Can you say it a little louder, Candy?” said Obama.
OK, that’s the set-up. Going back and looking at the transcript ourselves, Ms. Crowley was right. The day after the deadly assault the president stood outside at the White House and among other things said that “no acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.”
Plus, Obama repeated variations of this line at two fundraisers the next day. So, in a narrow sense, Romney was wrong. The word “terror” was part of Obama’s language about the attack from the first.
But in a larger sense Romney isn’t wrong. It took weeks for the administration to state clearly that the attack was a particular act of terrorism carried out by radical Islamists. Crowley made this point during the debate, too, but it got overshadowed by the reaction to Romney bungling the attack.
Crowley clarified this in interviews following the Hofstra rumble. For a long time, administration officials kept insisting that the attack was the outgrowth of protests about a US-made anti-Islamic video, she said on CNN afterward. References to “terror” were general, and details were vague.
Romney “was right in the main. I just think he picked the wrong word,” said Crowley.
For instance, during an appearance on ABC’s “The View” on Sept. 25, Obama himself declined an opportunity to label the assault as terrorism. He said instead that “there is no doubt that the kind of weapons that were used, the ongoing assault, that it wasn’t just a mob action.”
Evidence now points to an organized attack by heavily armed members of a local Islamic militia.
Finally, we’ll take this a step further: Is arguing over word choice missing the point? You call it “terror,” I call it “potato” – the real issue is why the US did not see the attack coming and move to prevent it. Was there intelligence chatter about a possible attack tied to the date Sept. 11? Why didn’t the ambassador have more security guards? What do we know about the motivations of the attackers? (According to New York Times interviews with locals, for instance, the militia in question was indeed outraged over the anti-Muslim video.)
That’s a larger and more important argument to get into. And what do you know – there’s another debate next week that focuses on foreign policy. We bet this subject comes up. Quickly.
Did Mitt Romney really say the US should let Detroit auto firms go bankrupt back in 2008? That was a subject of fierce contention in the town-hall presidential debate last night. But the millions of voters who tuned in to the Hofstra rumble heard little more than “did too” “did not” repartee about Detroit’s bailout. We think the exchange was confusing, so we’ll take a stab at decoding the facts behind this big issue.
First, the baseline: Yes, Mr. Romney did use the “bankrupt” word in conjunction with Detroit’s fate, as President Obama charged near the debate’s beginning. (“When Governor Romney said we should let Detroit go bankrupt, I said, we’re going to bet on American workers and the American auto industry,” were the president’s exact words.)
In fact, Romney published an opinion piece in The New York Times on Nov. 18, 2008, that was titled “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt." He didn’t write the headline, but was given a chance to approve it, according to the Times.
The piece opposed the bailout auto executives were begging for at the time. Better to let the weaker Detroit firms go through a “managed bankruptcy," wrote Romney, so they could emerge leaner on the other side, shed of onerous union contracts, pension obligations, and real estate costs.
“Detroit needs a turnaround, not a check,” wrote Romney back then.
Second, the response: So what? In reply to Obama’s jab, Romney pointed out that, in fact, Chrysler and GM did go bankrupt. The US government provided billions in debtor-in-place financing and pushed the pair through the Chapter 11 bankruptcy process in April 2009. They emerged shed of some workers, auto brands, and dealerships. Fiat ended up with a controlling interest in Chrysler, while the US itself took a big stake in GM. Today the firms are doing pretty well.
To hear Romney tell it, Obama just followed his plan.
“I think it’s important to know that that was a process that was necessary to get those companies back on their feet, so they could start hiring more people. That was precisely what I recommended and ultimately what happened,” said Romney in Tuesday night’s debate.
Third, the context: Yes, but ... there’s more. While Romney’s op-ed clearly envisioned the auto firms continuing to operate after emerging from bankruptcy, it also implicitly opposed throwing government cash into the process. Yet the reality is that the piece came out during the depths of the financial crisis. Banks were crumbling all around the world; lending for commercial activities was cold as a snowman’s heart. If the auto giants had toppled into bankruptcy at that moment, it would have been bankruptcy bankruptcy, if you know what we mean. Chapter 7. Closed for good. Weeds in the parking lots. Scrap dealers bidding on assembly lines. A managed care/nursing home conglomerate moving into GM’s empty headquarters.
“Many independent analysts have concluded that taking the approach recommended by Romney would not have worked in 2008, simply because the credit markets were so frozen that a bankruptcy was not a viable option at the time,” writes Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler in his own analysis of the situation.
That’s why, in the final punch on this subject at Hofstra, Obama said that Romney’s assertion that the bailout had followed his outline wasn’t true.
“He wanted to take them into bankruptcy without providing them any way to stay open,” said Obama.
With all the challenges facing our nation – from the millions of Americans still unemployed to terrorist threats abroad – is the presidential election really coming down to a fight over Planned Parenthood and Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women”?
That last phrase, of course, was the unfortunate choice of words Mr. Romney used in Tuesday night’s debate in explaining how, as a governor, he had made an explicit effort to appoint women to his Massachusetts cabinet. Upon discovering that most applicants for the posts were men, Romney said he asked his staff: “Well, gosh, can't we – can't we find some – some women that are also qualified?" He went on: "And – and so we – we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. I went to a number of women's groups and said: ‘Can you help us find folks?’ and they brought us whole binders full of women.”
Let’s put aside the fact that the accuracy of Romney’s remarks has already come into question. (The Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus reportedly prepared the “binder” in question well before the election, and had presented it to both Romney and his opponent.) Or that the substance of his response was, in essence, a dodge of the question posed, which had been about equal pay for women.
The larger point is, in a feisty and serious debate that ranged from energy policy to tax policy to the attack in Libya, it’s telling that the most memorable phrase to emerge from the whole evening was “binders full of women.” It was, as many commentators have pointed out, this debate’s Big Bird.
Apparently, that’s just how the Obama team wants it. With an economic record that’s still far short of where he hoped it would be – and with critics accusing the president of failing to offer a concrete, overarching vision for the next four years – Obama has run a campaign that often seems to focus instead on narrower appeals to specific segments of the electorate, just as George W. Bush did in 2004.
Which is why, throughout this election cycle, we’ve heard so much about the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and whether insurers should have to cover contraception. And why the Democrats gave former Georgetown Law student (and Rush Limbaugh bête noire) Sandra Fluke a prime speaking slot at their convention. And why swing states are currently being pummeled with ads by the likes of Scarlett Johansson and Eva Longoria, talking about how Romney wants to overturn Roe v. Wade.
This is not to say that these issues aren’t important – or that women (and men) shouldn’t take them into account when they head into the voting booth. Certainly, women, like all voters, want a president who shares their values – including their views on gender and equality – and for many, Romney’s remarks may have presented an important window into his character.
But it still feels, for lack of a better word, like a bit of a sideshow. A distraction from the main event.
Of course, the Romney campaign has at times played the same game – remember the ridiculous brouhaha over lobbyist Hilary Rosen’s comment about Ann Romney never having worked a day in her life? Or Mrs. Romney’s heavy-handed “I love you, women!” shout-out at the Republican National Convention?
The pandering on both sides reflects just how crucial women voters will be to this election. Independent women are seen as a critical swing voting bloc, and they make up many of the “undecided” voters still remaining out there. In 2008, Obama won women by 13 percentage points, and he has maintained a double-digit lead among women voters throughout much of this campaign. But a recent much-publicized Gallup Poll (which the Obama campaign called an outlier) showed Romney tied with Obama among women. Other recent polls have shown Obama still ahead, but by less than his 2008 margin.
There’s no question Romney helped Obama out Tuesday night with his awkward choice of words. Immediately after he uttered the phrase, Twitter was flooded with quips, most of which were along the lines of “I’ve seen those binders (heh, heh).” It was all made even funnier by Romney’s squeaky-clean, 1950s technocrat image (he loves those three-ring binders!). Within minutes, “binders full of women” had inspired a mocking Facebook page and Tumblr filled with joking pictures of women and binders (sample caption: “Trap Her Keep Her!”).
But given the urgent challenges the country is facing right now – including the looming "fiscal cliff," which economists warn could lead to another recession if Washington fails to act, and which has nevertheless not come up in any presidential or vice-presidential debate – well, it all seems oddly off-point. The recent Gallup poll showed the top issues for women right now are health care and the deficit and national debt. In the final days of the presidential campaign, maybe that’s what we should be talking about.
Did President Obama energize Democrats with his performance at Tuesday night’s debate on Long Island in New York? After all, there’s been lots of bemoaning among his party faithful in recent days. Many of them judged Mr. Obama’s first debate performance in Denver a disaster. Some went so far as to wonder whether the president’s apparent lethargy in the Rocky Mountain smackdown two weeks ago meant he didn’t really want to be president anymore.
Well, they can come in off the ledge. Obama’s performance at Hofstra University should quiet Democrats’ doubts and help energize them for the tough final weeks of the campaign. Whether the president’s forceful, almost physical confrontations with GOP nominee Mitt Romney stop his slide in the polls remains to be seen. But snap surveys judged Obama the night’s winner (though not by the margin Mr. Romney enjoyed after the first debate). And partisans were thrilled by Obama’s attacks on his rival’s policies and defense of his own administration.
“To my mind, Obama dominated Romney tonight in every single way: in substance, manner, style, and personal appeal ... he behaved like a president,” wrote influential Daily Beast blogger Andrew Sullivan.
OK – to be fair, Mr. Sullivan doesn’t label himself a Democrat. He further likened Obama’s Tuesday performance to that of “a lethal, restrained predator,” which is way over the top. But he’s been a strong Obama supporter since the 2008 primaries – and after the first debate he’d wondered aloud whether the president had lost the election at a stroke.
Polls taken immediately after Tuesday's debate showed that a plurality of voters considered Obama the winner, though not by much. In a CBS News/Knowledge networks survey of self-described undecided voters, 37 percent of respondents said Obama came out on top, while 30 percent picked Romney, and 33 percent called it a tie. A CNN poll of registered voters went for Obama by a margin of 46 percent to 37 percent.
Again, there’s no indication yet that this will bend the course of the campaign, as Romney’s overwhelming victory in the first debate appears to have done. But it may rally Obama’s dispirited party and refocus the race on fundamental issues in its final days.
“Barack Obama did well enough in the second debate that he can rest assured about one thing: if he loses his bid for a second term it won’t be because he is bad at debates,” wrote Politico’s John F. Harris and Jonathan Martin at the top of their debate wrap-up story.
As to substance, both Obama and Romney went back time and again to the basic argument for their campaigns. Obama framed the election as a choice between two very different ways forward, and charged his opponent as a flip-flopper on energy, women’s issues, immigration, and taxes. Romney gave as good as he got in his attempt to frame the election as a referendum on Obama’s job performance. The GOP nominee pounded relentlessly on the numbers behind the weak economy: 23 million Americans unemployed or looking for better jobs, unemployment hovering around 8 percent, and more Americans than ever on food stamps.
The most theatrical moment focused on Libya and the Obama administration’s shifting explanations as to what lay behind the attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Obama at one point said that he’d gone to the Rose Garden the day after the killings and described them as “terror.” Romney bore in, claiming that it wasn’t until two weeks later that Obama used that word to describe the tragedy in Benghazi. Then moderator Candy Crowley, who had a transcript of the event, stepped in and noted that Obama was right about his word choice.
“Can you say that a little louder, Candy?” said Obama. A burst of applause from the audience then obscured Ms. Crowley’s second point: Romney is right that the administration’s story about the attacks has shifted over time.
At another point, while the two men were arguing over who would be tougher on China, and whether Romney’s pension contains investments in Chinese companies, the ex-Massachusetts governor turned and told Obama he should check his own pension. Presumably, the Romney camp’s opposition researchers believe Obama’s investments have China connections as well.
But Romney never got that out, fully.
“I don’t look at my pension. It’s not as big as yours,” replied Obama.
“Too bad for President Obama that he saved his aggressive performance for his second debate with Mitt Romney. If he had done as well in the first debate, the presidential race might look different today,” wrote Mr. Barnes.
Over at the National Review, John O’Sullivan held that, taken question by question, the debate was won by Romney. Romney gave a strong list of the president’s failures in response to a question from an African-American audience member as to why he should give Obama another chance, for one thing. He handled a question about equal pay for women in a deft manner, in Mr. O’Sullivan’s view.
But Romney seemed taken aback by Obama’s Libya response and appeared to tire as the event progressed, according to the National Review writer.
“Whatever the reason, they seemed more evenly matched by the end. And that impression retrospectively colored the judgments of critics on the entire evening,” wrote O’Sullivan.