Here’s what the 2012 campaign has taught us thus far; frontrunners suck.
This time, for over 90 minutes at Hofstra University in Long Island, New York, it was Mitt Romney’s turn to suck. His resurrection, thanks to the sucking by Barack Obama on Oct. 3 in Denver, had tightened the state and national polls so severely it put his team literally back into action in places since abandoned like Michigan and Wisconsin, pushed Florida further out of the White House’s reach and scared the Obama campaign enough to put boots on the ground and money in the Pennsylvania coffers. Romney, apparently puffed by his own press clippings and figuring, as many of his proponents claimed, that he had exposed Obama as the weak, ineffectual fabrication of a left wing media, was waylaid by a resurgent and now equally desperate president of the United States.
Obama certainly earned his scars, as most of the damage in the first scuffle was self-inflicted. The president turned in arguably the worst debate performance in modern times. And then somehow this time around, Romney, well-coached and undaunted two weeks ago, became the stammering, defensive, and at times completely confused combatant. Obama simply kicked his ass.
Like Romney previously, Obama hit every campaign note; calling his opponent out on his convenient shift to the center by reminding him of his previous stances, wiggling out of accusations, both valid and fabricated, and accomplishing what only Texas Governor Rick Perry had managed in the Republican primaries; getting under Romney’s skin. Once unhinged by being challenged, something conspicuously missing in the previous debate, Romney’s well-rehearsed point-by-point dismantling of the Obama record was derailed. He appeared shaken; his voice cracked with controlled rage and in a strange twist, appeared genuinely surprised.
Obama controlled the room; a town hall setting wherein the candidates roamed in and out of each other’s space. Where there had been a dismissive presidential distance to his Denver performance, Obama came alive. Soon, there was an uneasy prowling aspect to the tussle, something that made people unaccustomed to political theater feel the candidates harbored disdain or lack of respect. But for the first time in a long time, those of us mired in the recent and ancient history of the craft of intellectual parry and thrust, there emerged a true sense that the passions of the campaigns were finally playing out.
After Denver, one was left to wonder if the president was up to the task. Now, after being smacked around, one wonders if the Republican challenger can be as deft and impressive when called out with equal force.
For the most part, both candidates ignored the town hall sequencing, choosing to turn questions from the audience into springboards for campaign rhetoric. However, Obama’s maneuvers, absent from the first go-round, were varied and lethal, while Romney, trying to return to the forceful nature of his Denver heroics, repeated the same four slogans over and over. Even when Romney had Obama on the ropes on his energy policies, which most outside the Democratic or Liberal circles see as overreaching and as such damaging to the nation’s economic recovery, he was befuddled by the president’s stringent denials. Romney was forced to awkwardly talk over him and demand an answer to a formulaic question and answer spat—like bad sports talk radio miasma. The exchange literally ended in a “No, I didn’t, Yes, you did, No, I didn’t, Yes, you did” spat. Stunned, and unable to sustain this, Romney was left to slink back to his stool a beaten man.
The final indignation for Romney, waiting all evening for the opportunity to redeem last month’s goof of broadly pontificating on an international incident still unfolding, occurred when a question arose on the recent deadly and haphazard handling of the terrorist plot to infiltrate the Libyan embassy. Obama, even in heady ducking mode, appeared presidential, taking the ultimate blame for miscommunication and gracefully pivoting to the tragedy of losing a man he appointed ambassador.
Romney, as he did last month, dove in uninformed and unaware of the consequences. Leaping off his chair to castigate the president for mishandling, maybe even covering up, he turned to accuse him directly of never mentioning a terrorist plot in his speech following the incident. With a scowling gaze fixed on the president, Romney raised his eyebrows like a disappointed parent, believing right then he had stemmed the tide of a subpar evening.
Obama ignored his challenge, urging Romney to continue. At that moment the anguish of the Romney campaign could be heard through the televisions screens of 65 million viewers. A slam dunk pinning had turned into a reversal. The president had indeed called the incident a terrorist plot. It was, as had been pushed by his campaign for weeks, the confusion of his staff and the State Department to echo the president’s words that provided grist for scandal. Romney froze as moderator Candy Crowley of CNN rightly pointed out the semantics.
Cloaked in commander-in-chief garb, draped on him unwittingly by Romney, it was Obama’s turn to dress his opponent down, painting him as a political charlatan ghoulishly trying to cash in on the death of Americans aboard.
Right there, round two went to Obama.
Although the lasting impressions of the evening were that both candidates shamelessly came to woo the white, suburban woman vote, something that has swung dramatically in Romney’s direction the past weeks, Obama forced Romney to answer for his support of the archaic Blunt Amendment, his defiance of the women’s fair pay law, called the Lilly Ledbetter Act, and the silly slap-fight nonsense he was forced to engage in with Rick Santorum over contraception and abortion during the primaries. Romney’s answers, while peripherally substantive, spun back to jobs, economic issues and family values, but ultimately appeared to duck the issue.
Not sure what any of it did, but neither candidate distinguished himself on this front, backed ably by both Obama and Romney’s post-debate rallies that stuck to women, women, and more women for days.
And so, by the time these words hit the newsstands, there will have been a last debate, perhaps a rubber match in this fascinating shift of performances, which for the first time in decades has created a seismic shift in the polling data, turning an emerging Obama victory into a Romney resurgence, and now, perhaps another Obama windfall?
Either way, it proves the measure of putting two candidates in the ring and letting them fight their way out; beyond illusionary conventions, billions spent on ads, super PAC nonsense, braying punditry, cable news cheerleading and half-assed preconceptions.
It certainly does the frontrunner no good, which is good for the electorate and the system.