Last night, a prep school bully got his ass handed to him. For 90 minutes, Mitt Romney stomped around the debate stage in a peevish rage, interrupting the moderator, bickering over the rules and bypassing voters' questions to wedge in his pre-programmed talking points. Standing across from this arrogant blowhard was a cool operator who had an opposition researcher's folder full of information to drop on Romney's head, which he did, deftly and for maximum effect. You knew the second Presidential debate was going to be different than the first one when President Obama dropped two nuggets of information into the back and forth about energy (of all things) that showed he was "on his brief." First, he deconstructed Governor Romney's claims about government licenses and permits to drill on public lands, explaining that companies were essentially told to "fish or cut bait" on their leases instead of just holding them in perpetuity. The second had to do with coal plants, one of which, President Obama helpfully pointed out, Romney had stood in front of while Governor bragging at its closure.
Overall, the President's "go to" maneuver all night was to separate his answers in two - responding affirmatively (and directly) to the question posed and then pivoting to why Romney was wrong. But Obama went one step further and withheld some of his strongest points until after Romney had started digging a hole. For example, when discussing equal pay for women, Obama waited for his rebuttal to Romney's response to mention that Romney did not support the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and then widened the lens to discuss how health care impacts women in the workplace, slipping two daggers into his answer, one about Romney's belief that employers should be able to determine if birth control is covered by their insurance plans and another about his interest in defunding Planned Parenthood. Romney was left to lamely claim he wants all women to have access to "contraception" (as he put it) - something his staffers are no doubt cleaning up in interviews with conservative media that won't be picked up for two days.
But what I found most odious about Romney's performance was his dismissiveness toward the President, treating Mr. Obama, both as a person and as the representative of the institution, like an underling interrupting the CEO. Early in the debate, during that same conversation about energy, Obama tried to interject and respond to something Governor Romney said, to which Romney responded: "You'll get your chance in a moment. I'm still speaking." Now, say what you will about debate etiquette (Romney violated it on several occasions when he asked the President direct questions, a no no according to the agreed upon Memorandum of Understanding the two sides signed) but as Americans, we accord our President deference, not as a deity or monarch, but as the leader of our country. Romney's tone was inappropriate and affirmed what many of us believe - that he does not like being challenged and is comfortable being demeaning and condescending toward others. As Howard Fineman and others have said, the more people see of Mitt Romney, the less people like him.
Romney's flailing on smaller issues, like claiming automatic weapons are illegal (they are not, the assault weapons ban that barred them expired in 2004) and his odd "binders full of women" comment might have been less mentioned but Romney's erratic performance finally caught up with him in what is likely to be the most talked about portion of the debate - when not just the President, but the moderator, "fact checked" him on when the President referred to the attack on our consulate in Benghazi as an "act of terror." Romney spouted the right wing talking point that it took 14 days for the attack to be so labeled and both the President's cool "check the transcript" and Candy Crowley's correction of Romney seemed to take the wind out of his sails. From that point on, Romney struggled, rambling and unfocused in his answers and falling back to canned talking points that had the feel of a boxer clinching to his opponent in an effort to make it to the end of the round.
And Romney may have made it out of Hofstra University having lost (and badly) on "points" had he not responded to the final question of the night in the way he did, where a knockout blow was struck. A voter asked the candidates about the greatest misperception people might have about them. Unprompted, Romney brought up his infamous "47 percent" comments, echoing prior statements about how he cares about the entire country. Sitting at home, I was thinking Obama could spend 20 minutes talking about the "misperceptions" Republicans have pushed about him - from his birth certificate to his religion, to harangue and bemoan the ill treatment he has received (he mentioned it elliptically earlier in the debate when he said, in an aside, that he was "used to being interrupted"), but instead, he pummeled Romney for those 47 percent comments, rightly calling out the former Governor for characterizing people as "takers" who were uninterested in contributing to society. His response is worth reading in context and full:
I believe Governor Romney is a good man. Loves his family, cares about his faith. But I also believe that when he said behind closed doors that 47 percent of the country considered themselves victims who refuse personal responsibility, think about who he was talking about.
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. People who are working hard every day, paying payroll tax, gas taxes, but don't make enough income.
And I want to fight for them. That's what I've been doing for the last four years. Because if they succeed, I believe the country succeeds. When my grandfather fought in World War II and he came back and he got a G.I. Bill and that allowed him to go to college, that wasn't a handout. That was something that advanced the entire country. And I want to make sure that the next generation has those same opportunities. That's why I'm asking for your vote and that's why I'm asking for another four years.
That response, in miniature, was pitch perfect and was the last word of the debate. Romney knew he was bested, shook hands with voters for a few minutes and then alit from the stage. The bully had been vanquished.