by Lakshmi Chaudhry and Sandip Roy
Some experts are calling it a tie, while snap polls anoint President Obama as the winner. But the more accurate reading of the second presidential debate is to say simply: Mitt Romney lost. Yes, Obama was "much improved" as one CNN pundit put it, but his re-energised avatar would have been less impressive without Romney's help.
The former governor of Massachusetts committed 5 key unforced errors that determined the outcome of the debate, each revealing a different and un-electable Mitt Romney.
The Billion Dollar Man
The question was on immigration policy, which has never been Romney's strong point given his history of flip-flopping. But Romney chose to resolve his conundrum by jumping straight out of the pot into a Chinese wok. Using his allotted time to rebut Obama's charges about his investments in China, he said, "Any investments I have over the last eight years have been managed by a blind trust and I understand they do include investments outside of the United States, including Chinese companies."
Fair enough, but then he took that step too far. "Mr President have you looked at your pension?" Romney asked Obama, repeating the question as he walked right up to him: "Have you looked at your pension?"
The "pension" moment underlined Romney's tone-deaf, billionaire image. Only an out-of-touch candidate would justify his hugely profitable foreign investments by attacking someone's retirement savings. The very word "pension" evokes the image of a middle class retiree in Florida with a little nest egg saved up for the golden years. In one fell swoop, Romney conflated Obama with that little old lady in Fort Lauderdale — an unexpectedly generous gift.
Obama didn't even have to spell it out. He just shrugged and slid in the dagger, "I don't look at my pension. It's not as big as yours, so it doesn't take as long." Everyone laughed — one of the rare moments of audience reaction during the debate — because they know exactly what he's talking about.
So Romney dug himself deeper: "Let me give you some advice. Let me give you some advice: You also have investments in Chinese companies, you also have investments outside of the United States. You also have investments in a Cayman trust." He's probably right, but you don't win elections as a billionaire investor by implying that the vast majority of Americans are every bit as compromised because their $50,000 "pension" fund includes some Chinese stocks.
The Ladies Man
Sometimes it just comes out wrong. Mitt Romney didn’t mean to sound like he was running a modeling agency when he said he had “binders full women” but that little gaffe is going to be the meme of the night saysThe Guardian.
"Binders full of women" became #bindersfullofwomen on Twitter, a Tumblr page and a Facebook page which within half an hour had over 20,000 likes.
But it also revealed something Romney doesn’t want revealed — his patronising attitude towards women and he wasn’t even in the tricky terrain of reproductive rights. The question was about the workplace. Romney expressed his shock (!) that his staff only brought forward the resumes of men. “And I said, ‘Well, gosh, can't we — can't we find some — some women that are also qualified?’”
Then Mr Fix-it got to work.
“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.”
First off, what kind of staff does he surround himself with that they didn't have any women they could recommend off the bat? And are qualified women a sort of rare and endangered species that you have to go on a special safari to find them? Ultimately, his great claim to championing women in the workplace was that he let his chief of staff go home early so she could fix dinner for her kids. Nice for his chief of staff but equal pay for equal work is means your promotions and perks don’t have to depend on the kindly largesse of bosses like Mitt Romey. Equal pay for equal work is about policy. Romney offered a little dinner-table anecdote instead.
By the way, that claim about Romney as the great white knight rushing to the rescue of ignored women, that’s not exactly true either. A non-partisan group called MassGAP was responsible for that effort according to the Boston Phoenix.
Either way, unfortunately for Mitt Romney, for undecided women watching the debate, the question becomes: Do you want to be in Mitt’s binder?
The Rubber Stamp Man
One of the things American voters discovered in this debate was that Mitt Romney had once been the governor of Massachusetts. Since he became a born-again conservative Republican after leaving that office, Romney doesn’t like to talk about his record of running that liberal state too much in front of his party base. But today trying to tap into undecided voters he brought it up again and again as part of the kinder, gentler Mitt Romney. But it tripped him up when the fierce opponent of gun control was asked about how he’d signed a ban while he was governor. Oh, that, said Romney, was all about bipartisanship.
“In my state, the pro-gun folks and the anti-gun folks came together and put together a piece of legislation.” Gee whiz, then you don’t need to be much of a leader to sign it, do you?
Romney was trying to turn his gun control flip-flop on its head to show he could break through gridlock but bipartisanship does not mean pushing the tough decisions onto someone else’s plate. Bush Jr. famously touted his experience in working with Democrats in Texas to show he could rise above partisanship. We all know how that turned out when it came to working with Democrats in Washington.
If Democrats and Republicans could agree on a healthcare reform then Americans wouldn’t need an Obama to fight for it. A President has to fight for what he believes in whether it's health care or immigration reform. He does not just get to show up for the signing ceremony with a fancy pen. That’s the job for empty suits.
The Used Car Salesman
Candidates are notorious for promising the moon but Romney is happy to sell you a bit of Mars as well if he thinks it will get your vote. Moderator Candy Crowley said they are making iPads in China. Would America ever get these jobs back? “We can compete with anyone in the world as long as the playing field is level,” responded Romney airily. Gas too expensive – no reason why it shouldn't be under 4 dollars a gallon. And Jeremy who is worried about a job after he graduates, don’t worry. “I’m going to make sure you get a job,” said Romney. One almost expected him to promise a chicken in every pot while he was at it.
Obama in response simply said “Candy, there are some jobs that are not going to come back”. There isn't a playing field level enough to turn American manufacturing into China's economic zones. Then he smartly flipped it around to say those were low-skill jobs, what he wanted were “high-wage high-skill” jobs. Can he get enough of them for all the Americans out of work? He didn’t answer that question but it didn't matter. He sounded like he was leveling with his audience whereas Romney was selling them a fictitious level playing field.
With the Secretary of State taking responsibility for the attack on the Benghazi consulate, the Benghazi tragedy offered Romney a chance to put Obama on the defensive — and on an issue, terrorism, that has been his strong suit ever since the killing of Osama bin Laden. The exchange over Libya instead is being deemed the game-changer, the moment when Romney lost the plot, and his edge.
"[T]hat moment is going to be one that's going to be replayed and replayed… Mitt Romney seemed to stumble, and he seemed to be rattled after that question," said NBC analyst Chuck Schumer.
For starters, Romney grabbed the bull by the wrong end by focusing on the conflicting statements released by White House, and therefore opened the door for Obama to neatly sidestep the issue and go all presidential:
I am ultimately responsible for what's taking place there because these are my folks, and I'm the one who has to greet those coffins when they come home… And the suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the secretary of state, our UN ambassador, anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we've lost four of our own, governor, is offensive. That's not what we do. That's not what I do as president, that's not what I do as commander in chief.
Romney then compounded his woes by insisting that Obama was lying: "You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack, it was an act of terror. It was not a spontaneous demonstration, is that what you're saying?… 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."
As it turns out, Obama had indeed referred to "acts of terror" in his Rose Garden speech, leaving Romney in the unenviable position of being fact-checked on the spot by the moderator.
Some analysts ascribe Romney's gaffe to the Republican echo chamber, which views Benghazi as evidence of White House dishonesty. But the critical gaffe also revealed a deeper weakness: The failure to acknowledge a post-George Bush reality.
The war on terror is no longer an advantage for the Republicans, and each time they talk tough on terror, they evoke memories of the disastrous Iraq invasion. That Obama was the one to finally get bin Laden, having promised to do so, merely compounds their weakness. Where Bush is now seen as having lied, over and over again, to the American people, Obama can safely insist, "You know that I mean what I say."
The credibility gap was plain to see when one of the undecided voters in CNN's focus group said, "The President took responsibility as the commander-in-chief. He plainly said that whatever happened was on his watch. And Romney should have just left it at that." Romney instead came across as mean-spirited, disrespectful, and worse, disingenuous.
Mitt Romney has long been vulnerable to charges of expediency, often accused of tailoring his persona and his politics to win votes, saying one thing on the stump and another behind closed doors with wealthy donors. He may indeed be a different man for different seasons, but Romney's bigger problem is that none of the men on display in Hofstra seemed likely to win this election.