There's only one sure fire way to know who really won the debate. If you find yourself bitching today about your guy, he probably didn't win...
Last night's debate was a blood bath. There is no other way to put it. Both candidates showed up and came out swinging. They interrupted each other. They talked over each other. They threw zingers. It was testy. It was engaging. At one point early on it even looked like they were about to come to blows. It was good political theater. What it wasn't was a knock out.
Everyone expected a more energetic Obama and boy oh boy did we get him! This was the night an Obama who has been beaten down since his disastrous debate in Denver two weeks ago got his mojo back. He did everything his supporters expected of him. He presented a vehement defense of his record. He attacked Mitt Romney for flip flopping on fossil fuels, gun control, immigration reform, pay equality, and women's health. He presented Romney's tax plan to the American people as "a sketchy deal." He made fun of his bank account. He presented himself as an oil and gas man. He hammered Romney for a pension on Cayman Island, an investment in China, and an abandonment of Detroit.
Romney's night wasn't disastrous by any means. His debate performance was aggressive. His call for a change of course on the economy was compelling. On taxes, energy, and jobs his opening statements were more convincing than the President's. Despite Obama's repeated insistence that Romney spent much of the night lying, the fact checkers will tell you the truth was overwhelmingly on his side. Yet, if all that is true, why do I say Romney lost? As we dive deeper into the arguments in the first two questions of the debate my overarching thesis is that as the rebuttal period regressed from a discussion of substances into an exercise in semantic gymnastics, Romney got flustered, lost his composure and ultimately let Obama off the hook.
Question 1: Will I Have a Job When I Graduate?
Jeremy Epstein asked the candidates what they would do to ensure that kids in his generation got jobs. The candidates responded as follows:
Romney: 1) Make College Cheaper (Expand Pell Grants, Loans, Scholarships) and 2) More Jobs (50% of recent college graduates are unemployed), 3) "When you come out in 2014 I'm going to presume that I'm president. I'm gonna make sure you've got a job!"
Obama: 1) Build Manufacturing Jobs in the USA Again (Do what we've done in Detroit everywhere), 2) Have the best education system in the world (improve access to college and make sure community colleges are retraining workers), and 3) Establish Energy Independence (supplementing fossil fuels with better efficiency and investing in renewable sources)
In the follow up Candy Crowley asked Romney what he could do immediately for those who have been out of work for longer than 6 months. Romney responded with a blistering attack on the Obama recovery. He noted that 23 million Americans are looking for jobs and that unemployment, when adjusted for those who have simply dropped out of the workforce out of frustration, has risen from 7.8% when Obama took office to 10.7% today. Romney was sharp, on point, and ruthless. This was all good stuff. Instead of quitting while he was ahead Romney, in a foreshadowing of the debate to come, started to engage the president on a debate on semantics in regards to the claim that he wanted to let Detroit go bankrupt. While I understand what he was trying to do, Romney's off the cuff explanation of how technical bankruptcy works was not the best way to end this segment.
Instead of forcing Obama to defend his economic record Romney's unneeded tangent put himself on the defensive and allowed Obama to open up claims that Romney is against the auto-bailout which is a political loser in swing states such as Michigan and Ohio. Obama then captured the momentum by saying that his actions directly prevented the loss of 1 million jobs. It was at this point that Obama opened up the first zinger of the night.
Governor Romney will tell you he has a five point plan. He doesn't have a five point plan. He has a one point plan! To make sure folks at the top play by a different set of rules!
Obama then proceeded to hammer the policies that Romney espouses for allowing him and other rich folks to pay a lower effective tax rate than ordinary Americans, companies to get tax breaks for outsourcing jobs, and private equity partners to get rich by bankrupting companies. Unbelievably, Obama blamed the middle class' current plight on a decade of these policies despite the fact he has had stewardship over the economy for the last four years. After the President was done speaking Romney walked up to Crowley who interrupted him and said, "That Detroit answer... way off the mark." It was the first of many times that Romney would appear to be a squeamish complainer during this debate. This question could not have been more in Romney's wheelhouse. By shifting the conversation to the Detroit auto bailout he let Obama off the hook for his economic record, something that would be a common theme of the night.
Round 1: Obama 10, Romney 9
Question 2: Energy Policy
In the second question a member of the audience asked President Obama if he agreed with his Energy Secretary Steven Chu's statement that its not policy of his department to help lower gas prices. Obama responded by saying, "The most important thing we can do is to make sure we control our own energy." Obama proceeds to note that under his administration domestic oil drilling is at a 16 year high, natural gas production is at its highest level in decades, and that the coal industry is booming. Combine that with the fact that he has made cars twice as efficient and opened up new areas for drilling and natural gas, oil imports are at 16 year lows. Obama's formula for lowering gas prices reads like this: increased efficiency --> decreased demand --> lower gas prices.
After that answer from Obama, Mitt Romney had to be licking his chops. Rising from his chair Romney calmly said, "Lets look at the president's policies as opposed to the rhetoric." It was at this point the the annoying battle of semantics was about to ensue. Romney admitted domestic production was up, but made the distinction that because none of it had happened on federal land it could not be attributed to Obama. Romney claimed that over the past year production of oil and gas on federal land are down 14% and 9% respectively. He then told the story of how a firm drilling for oil in North Dakota was sued by the Obama Administration because "20 or 25 birds were killed." His rant about the migratory bird expert became an immediate twitter sensation as it recalled his big bird comments from the first debate. Romney then got on the offensive when he said, "This has not been Mr. Oil, Mr. Gas, Mr. Coal." He promised that if elected President he would make North American energy independent within eight years. By further developing our domestic energy sources costs would be sufficiently low to bring back manufacturing jobs to the US. Romney promised more drilling, more permits, and more pipelines. He spent about one sentence on the Keystone XL pipeline that the Obama administration rejected. Moreover, he failed to do was to follow up on his blistering critique of the Obama Administration's awful green energy record from the first debate and failed to mention Solyndra, Tesla, A123 and a host of other companies that have cost US taxpayers billions.
The rebuttal period was a complete mess. At one point Obama and Romney were literally both standing up and getting in each others face while arguing about a statistic that fact checkers from the Washington Post, CNBC, and other news organizations found were both right. Depending on the timeline one chooses to use the argument could be made that drilling has both increased or decreased under the Obama Administration. When Romney pressed Obama about a 50% reduction in the amount of permits his administration has given out, he ceded the floor (and precious speaking time) to Obama. He allowed Obama to deliver his memorable "Use it or lose it," line in regards to drilling permits the government has pulled from companies who were sitting on them during his designated speaking time. Instead of engaging the president on a substantive debate about his failed energy policy the conversation degenerated into various permutations of the following exchange...
Romney: And production on government land...
Obama: Is up!
Romney: Is down...
Obama: No it isn't!
Romney: Production of oil on government land is down 14%. And production of gas is down 9%!
Obama: Governor what your saying, thats just not true.
Romney: Its absolutely true.
Romney was able to regain his composure after that testy exchange. He told the president that no one actually believed he was a friend of the domestic energy industry. He painted himself as a champion of American oil, gas, and coal. He asked viewers to consider why if the energy policies of the Obama Administration were truely working so well had gasoline and energy prices increased so dramatically. He noted that when Obama took office gas prices in Nassau Co. (Long Island, NY) were $1.86 a gallon compared to well over $4.00 a gallon today. As Obama rose to speak moderator Candy Crowley pressed him to answer Romney's critique regarding gas prices. Obama's answer was rhetorical sorcery at its finest.
Well thing about what the Governor just say. He said when I took office the price of gasoline was $1.80 $1.86. Why was 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 Governor Romney is now promoting. So its conceivable Governor Romney could bring down gas prices... because with his policies we might be back in that same mess!
You can obviously debate the truthfulness of this assertion, but as a cheap shot I found this to be one of Obama's most effective lines of the night. Its only appropriate that Obama immediately followed that up with one of his worst lines of the night. In defending his rejection of Keystone XL he actually said the following, "With respect to this pipeline Governor Romney keeps talking about... we've created, we've built, enough pipeline to wrap around the earth once... so... I'm all for pipelines... I'm all for oil production." Obama continued by slamming Romney for his campaign promise to end tax credits for wind farms in Iowa. Before Romney had a chance to respond Crowley was cutting him off. For the next thirty or so seconds a flustered Romney found himself arguing with the moderator for more time while simultaneously trying to deliver his rebuttal by talking over her. It didn't look good and Obama threw salt in the wound by saying, "Candy I'm used to being interrupted." Once again despite the facts being on his side, Romney let a golden opportunity to slam Obama on energy fall through his fingers by getting flustered and caught up in a debate about semantics that ultimately distracted him from landing a knock out blow.
Round 2: Obama 10, Romney 9
Check back this evening for Part II as we continue to dive deeper into the debate.