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Debate drama: How Romney lost the plot

Presidential debates are political theater. The drama may be rehearsed, and the critics are often glib in their reviews.
Presidential Debate
Presidential Debate

Presidential debates are political theater. The drama may be rehearsed, and the critics are often glib in their reviews. But like all good plays, there’s normally a crisis at the heart of the action.

That crisis came on Tuesday night when Mitt Romney tried to write his own lines. He had been stalking President Obama all night. Walking into his personal space like a hyperactive Al Gore, Romney tried to unnerve his co-star repeatedly. He often refused to sit down, and tried to hold center-stage like he owned the theater itself.

Then he fumbled and stammered through what should have been one of his strongest lines. How many times has he repeated the attack on the president for the tragic events on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya? About as many times as he has wrongly accused the president of going on an apology tour around the world.

So when the president boldly asserted that he called the events “an act of terror” in the Rose Garden, Romney pounced.

“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,” said Romney.

“He did in fact, sir,” the moderator Candy Crowley said sheepishly.

“Can you say that a little louder, Candy?” asked the president, as the audience of undecided voters laughed and applauded.

What followed ought to be played as a cautionary tale to high school debate teams across the nation for years to come. Romney had buried himself under a pile of oft-repeated GOP talking points, and nobody in his debate prep sessions had bothered to correct him.

The result was almost too painful to watch.

“It took them a long time to say this was a terrorist act by a terrorist group and–and to suggest –am I incorrect in that regard?” he asked the president sitting behind him.

“I’m happy to have a longer conversation about foreign policy,” quipped a relaxed Obama.

No wonder. Here’s what the president said in the Rose Garden on September 12th: “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for. Today we mourn four more Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America. We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act. And make no mistake, justice will be done.”

Within seconds, conservatives were suggesting that President Obama lied in the debate. He apparently didn’t say the words, “Benghazi was an act of terror.”

Perhaps they think the president was threatening justice for the terrible act of some unruly protestors. Facts are indeed stubborn things.

If the first debate showcased a confident, assertive Romney against a hesitant and unfocused Obama, the second debate—and especially the Benghazi exchange—reversed the roles. It served as a reminder of Romney’s political opportunism surrounding the entire Libyan episode: his rush to the cameras, and his failure to cross the presidential bar at a time of national mourning. He failed to cross that bar again in the second debate.

Tuesday’s drama did not start out that way. Romney walked out with the persona of a frontrunner: the kind of complacent, overconfident candidate that was previously Obama’s caricature.

Romney’s economic answers bulldozed their way through complexities and pesky things like his own policies. His five-point plan was almost as impressive the third time around as it was the first.

He managed to reconcile his promise to cut taxes for the wealthy with his promise to not cut taxes for the wealthy with a confident display of percentage confusion. “The top 5 percent of taxpayers will continue to pay 60 per cent of the income tax the nation collects,” he said. “So that’ll stay the same.”

Only their tax rates won’t stay the same. Nor will the dollar amount they pay. The only thing that will stay the same is the overall percentage of the entire tax revenues collected by the IRS. But it sure sounded like the wealthy would pay 60 per cent of something.

A single debate will not change the course of this election, no matter how loudly either candidate’s supporters cheer or jeer. But the history of the last similar election can give us a guide to what happens over all three acts of this debate drama.

Back in 2004, John Kerry seemed to have lost the election by the time he arrived at the first debate. His convention was a washout, while the sitting president’s convention energized his own party. Kerry had suffered a brutal couple of months as his opponents caricatured him as an extreme politician who couldn’t decide what he stood for.

Then the challenger trounced the president in the first debate and the election turned upside down. A four-point lead was wiped out. Even after the second debate, when the president scored a tie, the polls were deadlocked. By the time of the third debate, the sitting president had reclaimed a two-to-four-point lead. And that was where the election ended up.

This time around, President Obama enjoyed a far stronger second debate than President Bush in 2004. The video clips that will be played and replayed on TV over the course of the next several days will show a combative president and an alternately confident and stumbling challenger.

Perhaps the killer question came from a perfectly dressed, middle-aged lady who asked Mitt Romney an innocent question, mid-debate. She was disappointed by the last four years, she said, softening up the challenger. But she was also concerned, because she blamed much of the economic and international mess on President Bush. And she feared a return to Bush’s policies under Romney. So how were they different?

“I appreciate that question,” said Romney, before veering off into an answer about contraception. When he returned to the question, he claimed President Bush was not serious about energy security, which will be news to the Bush advisers in his own campaign.

Romney claimed he would differ from Bush because he would finally deal with the deficits and China.

But the real difference between the two Republicans is that they are, as Romney himself pointed out so insightfully, “different people.”

If history is any guide, they are different candidates too.