Tuesday night’s presidential debate was full of flash points and tense exchanges, but an especially revealing moment came during the back-and-forth over energy policy, when Mitt Romney repeatedly interrupted President Obama to press him on the question of whether oil production on public lands had gone down during his administration.
As Chris Hayes noted after the debate, Romney blatantly flouted the rules both parties had agreed to beforehand. According to the memorandum of understanding signed by both campaigns, candidates are prohibited from posing direct questions to one another at any point during the debate. Under Section 5, titled “Rules Applicable To All Debates,” there is this provision: “The candidates may not ask each other direct questions during any of the four debates.”
Romney’s breach of that contract, according to Hayes, reveals something deeper and more insidious about the ways in which privileged elites see rules in general:
Now, at a certain level, who cares, right? Who cares? Here’s why I care. The theme of the last ten years of this country is the people at the top have felt the rules don’t apply to them. And you send your people to sit down and negotiate a set of rules, and 20 minutes into it you throw it out the window. And everything we’ve seen, from the financial crisis to everything else that’s happened in this country, has been about the oligarchs and the ruling class and the people at the top feeling that they are not a party to the social contract. So some stupid little contract that was negotiated by your people, you don’t worry about.
Of course, Romney wasn’t so shy about soliciting the moderator, Candy Crowley, to enforce the rules when it served him, insisting repeatedly that he was being given less time to speak than President Obama. Romney, in fact, has a longstanding preoccupation with the rules of debates, bristling during Republican primary debates when opponents would cut into his speaking time. When Texas Gov. Rick Perry interrupted him during an especially tense exchange in October of last year, Romney replied, “The way the rules work here is that I get 60 seconds and you get 30 seconds to respond.”
Romney, of course, showed no such reverence for the rules during Tuesday night’s debate.