Debate Round 3: Sketchy Deals and Womanly Binders

First sign that a debate didn’t go very well for your side: when the gathering conventional wisdom on your side is that the outcome is a draw. That’s where the sensible GOP money seemed to land as the dust settled after Tuesday night’s second presidential debate at Hofstra University on Long Island. Sure, there were the inevitable true believers, like Red State blogger Erick Erickson, who somehow managed to convince himself that Mitt Romney ate Barack Obama’s lunch. But cooler redheads sought to detoxify Romney’s underwhelming performance with an antidote of balance. The National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru credits Obama with halting liberal handwringing but concludes “otherwise a draw.” Former Bush flack Ari Fleischer merged Romney’s jabs at Obama’s first-term shortcomings with Obama’s assault on Romney into the same conclusion: “draw.” Anyone buying that?

Second sign that a debate didn’t go very well for your side: when your dominant post-debate spin theme is an obsessive attempt to read earth-shaking subterfuge into an unremarkable short phrase in a presidential statement on a narrow issue that very few people care about. The subject here, of course, is Libya, and it was one of the most heated exchanges of the evening. Taking umbrage at Romney’s suggestion that he wasn’t on the ball right after the 9/11 attack in Benghazi, Obama pointed out that he stood in the Rose Garden the next day and said it was an act of terror. Romney, effectively calling the president a liar, insisted that “it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.” Obama shot back, “Get the transcript.” What that transcript shows is Obama saying on 9/12: “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation.” The meaning here and its connection to the Benghazi raid is patently obvious, yet many Repubs were beside themselves after the debate denying this clear semantic reality (for instance, a Karl Rove tweet: “Obama didn’t directly call Lybia attack ‘act of terror’ in Rose Garden — broadly referred to acts of terror”). This is not to say that the Obama administration might not still have a bit of a Libya problem. It is to say that if you’re building your post-debate spin on a dubious parsing of words in a month-old statement, it didn’t go very well for your side.

Third sign that a debate didn’t go very well: when you start piling on the moderator. Some Dems fell into this trap after the disaster in Denver twelve days earlier, and this time it’s Republicans calling CNN’s Candy Crowley to account for letting Obama talk too much or for picking biased questions, or (especially) for injecting her own factual take. Her crime: saying to Romney in an attempt to move the Libya conversation off the did-so-did-not stalemate: “He did call it an act of terror.” For this mild act of honest journalism, wrote Jim Geraghty at the National Review, “Candy Crowley is responsible for one of the most egregious misjudgments of any moderator in the history of presidential debates.” Holy overreaction, Batman!

Romney wasn’t uniformly terrible by any means. He offered the usual, and as usual pretty effective, critiques of Obama’s record on domestic economic matters, overachieved on a question inviting him to distinguish himself on policy fronts from George W. Bush, and displayed at times his customary deftness at pivoting from issues raised to Obama jabs.

But just as Obama in Denver seemed unprepared to cope with revisionist Mitt, Romney at Hofstra came off as blindsided by the directness of Obama’s punch after punch at Romney’s policies as well as his shifting inconsistencies. On the latter — hammering Romney for running in the campaign’s final weeks on a version of himself that deviates broadly from his more severely conservative past in the primaries — Obama’s frontal assault brought to fruition a major tactical shift. Team Obama has throughout this campaign avoided an emphasis on the flip-flopper angle, having judged that being a flip-flopper isn’t so bad in the eyes of swing voters, especially if the flopping is in a direction those voters like. In deciding how to update Obama’s debate approach after the Denver calamity, Obama and handlers apparently arrived at the sensible decision to spend much more time not just refuting Romney’s arguments, but also labeling them and labeling him. This was effective because there’s not much for the other guy to do in response to a label but deny it — and appear defensive in the process.

Certainly Obama benefited substantially from some of the territory covered. Given the corners into which Romney allowed himself to be painted by his party’s primary process on social issues, there is no imaginable debate context in which Romney is likely to come off well on subjects like pay equality, contraception, and immigration. Plus Obama made some adroit preemptive moves. For instance, instead of waiting for Romney to bring up something like Planned Parenthood and use it as a cudgel, Obama went there first, waving PP (appropriately) as a badge of honor in his defense of women’s health issues, then offering it up again later to make the point that Romney on social issues is to the right of George W. Bush. Although lots of spinners tweeted lots of platitudes afterward, I do think veteran Dem Donna Brazile aptly summed up the effectiveness of Obama’s attacks: he “knew Romney’s positions better than his opponent.”

Fourth sign the debate isn’t going well: when you find yourself telling the other guy he should spend more time with his mutual fund statements. Perhaps Romney will be kind enough to lend Obama some binders to store them in.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.

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