17 Oct 2012

Debate? This was more like Fight Club

Thank goodness last night’s debate was at 9pm, when my young children were already in bed nodding off to a wonderful dream world where Presidential candidates let each other finish sentences, don’t interrupt and listen respectfully to the moderator.

My eight year old would have been appalled by the debate turned fight club. My thirteen year old daughter would have recognized the GOTCHA tone from break time.

Barry Obama and Mitt Romney were at each other’s throats last night and this wasn’t sport. It was personal, nasty and just what the Democrats wanted, to reassure them that their man had a spine and a will to win.

Two weeks ago at the Denver debate Obama took presidential decorum to new barbiturate heights. Last night he was on a tried and tested medication called “fear of losing your job”. It did the trick.

The President punched back again and again. He questioned virtually every one of Mitt Romney’s claims. He mostly walked the fine line between assertion and aggression. What he didn’t do is let the American people know what exactly he had in mind for the next four years of how he intended to transform America at a crucial juncture when this nation either needs to reinvent itself or proceed on the glide path to decline.

Mitt Romney was good at pointing out all the things that had gone wrong in the last four years and all the promises that had been broken. He has a vision of a bright economic future for America. But the numbers add up so unconvincingly that it seems more like a hallucination.

It is one thing for the “Mittens” to take his gloves off. It is quite another to let aggression get the better of you. On the issue of Libya and the slayhing of four American diplomats Romney should have scored an open goal, especially since the administration had denied the late Ambassador Chris Stephens the added protection that he had repeatedly asked for, and that might have saved his life when the Consulate in Benghazi was attacked.

Instead Mitt Romney failed to make this point, and then shot himself in both feet by getting his facts wrong about when exactly the President had called the attack “an act of terror”. This was petty stuff that missed the wider issue about America’s inadequate response to the Arab Spring. But in a debate, nothing hurts like a self inflicted wound.

Another memorable moment came when Mitt Romney tried to further woo those all important female voters who had been flocking to him since the Denver debate. As a businessman, he said he had been keen to hire women, and had received “binders full of women” on his desk.

It was an awkward phrase that went viral on Twitter and led some to quip that this was perhaps an involuntary allusion to Mitt Romney’s personal paradise, in which the Book of Mormon meets the stationary giant Staples, a company he had helped to create.

With his performance, Obama will have stopped the panic in his campaign and the bleeding in the polls. For his part Mitt Romney will have proven to his side that he still has the potential to go all the way to the White House.

Debate performances tend to be in the eye of the beholder and both sides would have been encouraged enough to look forward to round three, the final debate next week in Florida, devoted – in theory – to foreign policy.

With an election too close to predict, the bitter fight will continue to the bitter end.

Follow Matt Frei on Twitter

Tweets by @mattfrei