The second presidential debate was combative, surprisingly informative and -- at times -- slightly uncomfortable, as a noticeably energetic President Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, constantly accused each other of telling flagrant lies and, at times, managed to completely drown out one another’s voices in their battle to get the last word in edgewise.
During the 90-minute town hall-style debate, the candidates were asked to address some familiar talking points that were also a focus of the first debate in Denver and last week’s vice presidential debate: Tax policy, job creation and Libya. But this time, the questions were better, moderator Candy Crowley stood firm under the candidates' frequent attempts to speak over her, and both Obama and Romney weren’t afraid to get in each other’s faces as they repeatedly -- and forcefully -- clashed.
In a refreshing change, they were also able to broach topics largely ignored this campaign -- such as pay equity and gun control -- despite their immediate relevance to the lives of everyday Americans. Romney was finally forced to publicly renounce former Republican President George W. Bush, distancing himself after being asked how he is similar to the unpopular president. There were so many great moments, but the following were the one’s that (in addition to being extremely entertaining) revealed the most about the candidates’ positions and visions for the future.
The energy policy face-off. Not only did the exchange feature Obama and Romney battling to prove which one was the bigger champion of American fossil fuel production (although Obama, stretching the truth a bit when he said that natural gas drilling is “completely safe,” managed to throw in a few words about the pressing need for renewable energy development).
But the visual of the night was the moment when Romney, reeling from Obama’s accusation that he misrepresented the state of energy production on public lands, strode across the stage to confront the president face-to-face, only feet from the audience.
Romney’s “binders full of women.” First off, it needs to be noted that Romney, in front of the entire nation, managed to avoid answering the question of whether he supports pay equity legislation to ensure women receive equal pay for equal work.
Women still receive 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man in a comparable position, which is why President Obama said he supported the passage of the Lily Ledbetter Act, the first bill he signed into law after entering the White House.
Romney didn’t talk about the gender wage gap. But, he did say he hired women while he was governor of Massachusetts, before reflecting on how women’s groups used to bring him “binders full of women” who were presumably qualified to fill vacant cabinet positions. The inadvertently humorous statement inspired internet memes and a Tumblr account before the debate had even concluded.
And while Romney may not have touched on rectifying workplace pay inequalities, he did say women should be able to have flexible work schedules -- so they can go home early to make dinner for their children. This really happened.
Romney insisting the math in his tax plan really does add up. This section of the debate essentially had Obama and Romney delivering their usual stump speeches about their tax reform plans. As was expected, Romney was pressed about whether it was mathematically possible for him to institute a 20 percent across-the-board federal income tax cut (in addition to extending the current Bush tax cuts) without either adding to the federal budget deficit or ultimately passing on the cost to the middle class.
Several studies have cast doubt on that claim. So Crowley directly asked Romney if the numbers add up.
“Of course the numbers add up!” Romney said, arguing that he had been in business his whole life and certainly knew if the numbers were accurate. It was a reminder of what Ezra Klein wrote about Romney’s “postmodern” approach to policy: He has his own version of the truth, and everyone else has theirs.
That’s because the six studies that Romney says prove his plan “adds up” aren’t actually six studies. As the Washington Post reports, three of those studies are blog posts or online articles, and is another is an op-ed. Martin Feldstein, the author of the op-ed, is also the author of one of those blog posts -- where he defends the op-ed article in question as a “study.”
Romney’s China freak-out. While discussing job growth, Obama called Romney out for investing in companies that outsourced jobs to China during his years at Bain Capital, and for allegedly currently investing in companies that are building surveillance equipment “for China to spy on its own folks.”
Obama got the last word in on the subject, and Romney was visibly fuming. But it was a moment that likely would have been forgotten. Romney, however, couldn’t let it go, leading him to accuse Obama of having his own investments in China some time afterward, when the topic had turned to immigration. The moment prompted a brief power struggle with Crowley, who kept telling the Republican candidate he was off topic and demanding that he return to the subject at hand, and wide smiles from Obama.
Finally, gun control. Both of the campaigns have been largely silent on gun control, even in the wake of the several mass shootings that occurred this past summer. But the candidates finally offered their views on the subject after an audience member asked Obama how he planned to limit the availability of assault weapons.
Obama, who has been anxious to assure voters that he respects their Second Amendment rights, said he supported a reintroduction of the federal assault weapons ban, but did not go as far as to call for tighter regulations for handgun ownership.
Romney said he would not support any new legislation regarding gun laws. But, he did have one idea for combating violence: Having less children out-of-wedlock. The former Massachusetts governor, while arguing that two-parent homes are healthier for children, also said there would be less violence in the U.S. if more people waited until they were married to have children.
The revealing final statements. The candidates were asked what they believed was the biggest misconceptions Americans have about them.
Romney’s answer? “I care about 100 percent of the American people. I want 100 percent of the American people to have a bright and prosperous future. “
That’s right. Romney had to acknowledge that the biggest “misconception” about him is that he does not care about the poorer half of the country. What a thing for a presidential candidate to feel compelled to clarify during a debate.
Obama answered the question by assuring the nation that he is not the communist the Tea Party has accused him of being, because he believes the free enterprise system -- not the government -- creates jobs.
The president, who closed the debate by framing himself as a champion for the middle class, also used his closing statement to bring up his opponent's infamous comments in which Romney claimed that 47 percent of Americans do not pay income taxes and refuse to take personality responsibility for their own lives.
“Think about who [Romney] was talking about,” Obama said, referring to the 47 percent. “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.”