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William Rivers Pitt: When the President Comes to Town

During last night’s debate, Romney appeared astonished at having to avoid a counterpunch for most of the event, and spent virtually the entire evening falling over every lie he has told since 1994.

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If you’re dealing with a guy who says government doesn’t create jobs right after he claims he will personally create 12 million jobs if given the top gig in government, it shouldn’t be all that surprising when that guy becomes subsumed by his own demonstrable contradictions.

Such was the story of Mitt Romney on Tuesday night at Hofstra: President Obama did very well, while Mr. Romney appeared astonished at having to avoid a counterpunch for most of the event, and spent virtually the entire evening falling over every lie he has told since 1994.

The first presidential debate of 2012 was a hot mess, a collision between the GOP’s hyperactive congenital-liar candidate and a president who had clearly failed to properly plug himself in to the contest. On that Wednesday night, the liar pushed the president all over the stage, the president – for reasons still passing understanding – let him do it, and the “news” media chose -for reasons of rank, abject laziness – to call the performance a win for the liar.

The error was not repeated this second time around.

I’m not sure who Mitt Romney expected to meet on Tuesday night, but he brought to the debate the same aggressive-liar/fact-avoider game plan he deployed the first time around, and it did not work out well. Ten minutes into the contest, Barack Obama punched back hard enough to scramble Romney’s eggs permanently, and spent the remainder of the evening batting the former Massachusetts governor around the room like a cat in possession of a mouse and a head full of bad intentions.

The debate was framed in a town hall setting and moderated by CNN’s Candy Crowley, who, it should be said, comported herself better than I expected. Eleven questions were asked of the candidates over the course of the night, and it quickly became abundantly clear that there were two very different men on the stage: one was a seasoned Commander in Chief, a man who was standing in defense of his record and who wanted to continue at his post; the other was a guy who – even after many years of campaigning – was inadequate to the simple, straightforward task of explaining why he wanted the job, and what he would do with it if he obtained it.

The evening was defined by the questions offered by audience members. The first question came from a college student who expressed deep concern about his chances of landing a job once he graduates. Mr. Romney fielded this question, and offered a word salad about opportunity that was capped by the line, “We have to make sure that we make it easier for kids to afford college.”

So saith the man who, with his bare face hanging out not so long ago, told college students that the answer to their academic funding dilemma was to have their parents pay for college. It’s so easy when it’s easy, right?

Mr. Obama took this opportunity – all of ten minutes into the contest – to show Mr. Romney that he was not dealing with the same fellow from the last time around. Obama immediately hit Romney on the Detroit bailout in defense of his own job growth record – “Now, when Governor Romney said we should let Detroit go bankrupt, I said we’re going to bet on American workers and the American auto industry, and it’s come surging back.” – and when a suddenly defensive Romney delved into absurdity by attempting to claim personal credit for salvaging the auto industry himself – “That was precisely what I recommended and ultimately what happened.” – Mr. Obama smiled, and then defined the conversation from that moment on in lethal fashion.

Candy, what Governor Romney said just isn’t true. He wanted to take them into bankruptcy without providing them any way to stay open. And we would have lost a million jobs. And that – don’t take my word for it, take the executives at GM and Chrysler, some of whom are Republicans, may even support Governor Romney. But they’ll tell you his prescription wasn’t going to work.

And Governor Romney’s says he’s got a five-point plan? Governor Romney doesn’t have a five-point plan. He has a one-point plan. And that plan is to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules. That’s been his philosophy in the private sector, that’s been his philosophy as governor, that’s been his philosophy as a presidential candidate.

You can make a lot of money and pay lower tax rates than somebody who makes a lot less. You can ship jobs overseas and get tax breaks for it. You can invest in a company, bankrupt it, lay off the workers, strip away their pensions, and you still make money.

That’s exactly the philosophy that we’ve seen in place for the last decade. That’s what’s been squeezing middle class families. And we have fought back for four years to get out of that mess. The last thing we need to do is to go back to the very same policies that got us there.

Mr. Obama did not say the word “Bain” once all night, but in that statement, said everything that needed saying about the damning history of Romney’s brainchild company, even as he reminded his audience that “the very same policies that got us there” are to be avoided at all costs. Mr. Romney’s robotic grin began to falter at this point, and did not return for the rest of the engagement.

The second question of the evening led to the first legitimate public mauling Mr. Romney was forced to absorb.

When asked what, if anything, Obama intended to do about high gas prices, Mr. Romney took the opportunity to attack the president for not being “Mr. Oil, Mr. Gas, or Mr. Coal,” and reeled off a laundry list of every energy source he professed to love with all his heart while attacking the administration for, among other things, slacking off on coal energy development.

Mr. Obama, in response, dropped his devastating brick: “When I hear Governor Romney say he’s a big coal guy, I mean, keep in mind, when – Governor, when you were governor of Massachusetts, you stood in front of a coal plant and pointed at it and said, ‘This plant kills,’ and took great pride in shutting it down. And now suddenly you’re a big champion of coal.”


Bear in mind that this had all taken place only two questions and seventeen minutes into the debate. Romney began to jitter and jive, shimmy and shake, and whatever veneer of professional detachment he sought to project began then and there to crack, flake and fall to pieces.

For the record: at minute seventeen, Mitt Romney got smoked for the second time, and in front of a national audience during an event that was -so he and his people had hoped – supposed to be the moment he closed the deal.

At minute eighteen, Mitt Romney got angry, because the guy he was expecting to show up had been replaced by a fellow who actually showed up to debate, and actually punched back. Mr. Romney did not cope well with this new reality, and question number three did not improve matters for him.

Question number three was, in fact, when the wheels came off the wagon.

The question verbatim: “Governor Romney, you have stated that if you’re elected president, you would plan to reduce the tax rates for all the tax brackets, and that you would work with the Congress to eliminate some deductions in order to make up for the loss in revenue. Concerning these various deductions, the mortgage deductions, the charitable deductions, the child tax credit and also the education credits, which are important to me, because I have children in college, what would be your position on those things, which are important to the middle class?”

The core of Romney’s answer, according to his proposed plan: “Your rate comes down, and the burden also comes down on you for one more reason, and that is every middle-income taxpayer no longer will pay any tax on interest, dividends or capital gains. No tax on your savings. That makes life a lot easier.”

No taxes on dividends or capital gains, eh? No taxes on savings? Outstanding. Perhaps, when ordinary working, struggling people maybe get the chance to enjoy a capital gain, get to enjoy the fruits of dividends, or get to enjoy the luxury of having savings beyond one extra paycheck in the bank – things that simply do not exist for most Americans after a generation of trickle-down economics has had its way – the plan Mr. Romney proposed might sound attractive. On Tuesday night, however, it sounded like a rich guy trying to grease his plan for helping his rich friends down the rails by attempting to confuse poor people with financial jargon.

It wasn’t jargon to the audience. Everyone heard that, and it hit both the studio and television audiences like a howl of feedback at a badly-wired concert. Who has dividends? Who has capital gains? Who has savings these days, fa chrissake? Who is this guy really talking to?


And then came question number four, addressing workplace inequality, with specific emphasis on pay inequality between men and women. Mr. Obama’s answer was solid, referencing the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act he signed into law.

Mr. Romney’s answer was, for lack of a better word, catastrophic.

Let the man speak for himself.

An important topic, and one which I learned a great deal about, particularly as I was serving as governor of my state, because I had the chance to pull together a cabinet and all the applicants seemed to be men. And I – and I went to my staff, and I said, “How come all the people for these jobs are all men.” They said, “Well, these are the people that have the qualifications.” And I said, “Well, gosh, can’t we – can’t we find some – some women that are also qualified?”

Gosh, can’t we find some qualified women?

Translation: the cabinet for any successful political campaign is comprised of the people who formed, controlled and ran that campaign. If there were no women placed in the Cabinet after the campaign, that is because there were no women involved in the campaign. Period. Mr. Romney will happily prop women up after the fact to showcase his diversity credentials, but when there is actual work to be done, the ladies should be home making dinner, so as not to force their employers into being “flexible.”

And it got worse.

Mr. Obama on the difference between Mr. Romney and George W. Bush: “You know, there are some things where Governor Romney is different from George Bush. George Bush didn’t propose turning Medicare into a voucher. George Bush embraced comprehensive immigration reform. He didn’t call for self-deportation. George Bush never suggested that we eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, so there are differences between Governor Romney and George Bush, but they’re not on economic policy. In some ways, he’s gone to a more extreme place when it comes to social policy. And I think that’s a mistake.”

When the conversation went further into immigration, Mr. Romney found himself choking on his own widely-publicized endorsement of Arizona’s “If You’re Brown, You’re Wrong” law. When Romney tried to split ridiculous hairs and claim he wasn’t really for the draconian law he’d lavishly praised in order to win some western GOP primaries several months ago, Mr. Obama crushed him like a scorpion on Interstate 10: “Governor Romney says he wasn’t referring to Arizona as a model for the nation. His top adviser on immigration is the guy who designed the Arizona law, the entirety of it; not E-Verify, the whole thing. That’s his policy. And it’s a bad policy.”

And then, at about an hour and a quarter into the debate, came the defining moment of the night.

A question on Libya that everyone had been waiting for was posited, framed around the idea that the State Department had failed to provide adequate security, thus allowing the deaths of an ambassador and three embassy staffers, and the president was to blame. This, right here, was the moment the Romney campaign – indeed, the entire Beat Obama galaxy – had been waiting for. Romney dove in headfirst, condemned Obama for going to fundraisers in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, and again accused the president of going on an “apology tour” after taking office.

The verbatim exchange that followed tells the mortal tale.

ROMNEY: I – I think interesting the president just said something which – which is that on the day after the attack he went into the Rose Garden and said that this was an act of terror.

OBAMA: That’s what I said.

ROMNEY: 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?

OBAMA: Please proceed, governor.

ROMNEY: 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.

OBAMA: Get the transcript.

CROWLEY: It — it — it — he did in fact, sir. So let me — let me call it an act of terror…

OBAMA: Can you say that a little louder, Candy?

CROWLEY: He did call it an act of terror.

It is difficult to describe with precision just exactly how bad this moment was for Mr. Romney if you did not see it with your own eyes.

Seriously, you had to see it to believe it.

Romney thought he had the oft-sought, seldom-achieved campaign kill shot in his hands – the idea that he had caught the president in a lie on national television – but instead, wound up getting embarrassingly fact-checked by the moderator in front of God and Creation while his opponent sat back and smiled. The Romney campaign had game-planned for the Libya issue to be their best punch, and it turned into a withering, shattering, defining moment of humiliation.

The remainder of the night for the Republican candidate was a nest of awkward, angry gibberish. He tried and failed to turn a question about why he approved of legal ownership of assault weapons into some aria about family values and having children in wedlock. He badly bungled a question on outsourcing, as only a man who bathed in riches thanks to outsourcing could. When offered a final chance to define himself, he spoke of caring for 100% of the people, thus bending his knee to the storyline his opponent had been writing about him since April.

And then, at long last, the President of the United States slipped in the final dagger.

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.

The political “news” media needs a simple, direct story line to survive, so here it is: the bully got punched in the mouth on Tuesday night, and did not like the taste of his own blood. Mr. Romney’s advisors clearly told him to double-down on the blustery, brazen tactics of the first debate, but that advice withered within the first ten minutes before a presidential adversary who was too smart, too tough, and too good to let stupidity win the day a second time.

Mitt Romney found himself in a room with the Commander in Chief, and came off by comparison looking like a guy who had lost a contact lens while trying to navigate an alligator pit in the midst of a negotiation over the exact value of his own testicles.

The degree to which this second debate will affect the overall race is, frankly and thankfully, something for others to bother with. Speaking personally, I turned off the television immediately after the debate, and have deliberately avoided looking around for opinions on the night. For all I know, the “news” media consensus may be that Barack Obama was mean and rude and nasty and bad and wrong and also awful and poopy and bad again. If that turns out to be the case, if the consensus reached holds Mitt Romney out as the winner of this second debate, then we as a nation are likely to get exactly what we deserve for allowing so shoddy an information infrastructure to endure.

I do not, however, think that is in the cards.

The President of the United States came to town on Tuesday night. The event is not likely to be forgotten any time soon.

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