Hofstra Debate: Obama wins with facts, passion, leadership

Romney’s ill-informed bullying worries women, shames candidate, his party

In last night’s debate at Hofstra University, Pres. Barack Obama demonstrated why he won more votes than any other candidate in US political history: astonishing comprehensive engagement with a wide range of issues, and the ability to synthesize—to bring together into one coherent, inclusive vision of what is—disparate realms of policy and practice in governing, always with a genuine focus on what is right and dignified about putting the people first.

Mitt Romney, by contrast, demonstrated a callous, petty and aloof, air, motivated by a near total disregard for the rules, for general decorum or for any sense of basic respect for the tragic significance of issues like poverty or war. To what must have been the shock of millions, Romney behaved as if no rules applied to him, and acted as both a rhetorical and physical bully toward the moderator, the President of the United States, and the people who were there to ask questions.

Should we have a change in the office of the presidency, it was a deeply worrying suggestion of what might be: an untempered aggressor, incapable of tact or grace under pressure, constantly outwitted by circumstances he does not understand and about which he refuses to be honest. Romney showed some deep threads of character in last night’s town hall, including the bizarre exchange where he seemed incapable of understanding that a Latina woman was named Lorraine.

Romney embarrassed himself greatly, showing a lack of understanding of how the tax code would react to his extreme, yet vague, policy proposals. He showed a callous indifference to the feelings of the families who lost loved ones in Benghazi, who had asked him to stop using the killings to try to score cheap political points, and by doing so, he allowed Obama to show the true leadership quality required for the presidency, a genuine respect for the gravity of such incidents.

Pres. Obama, more importantly, showed his character as well: he was cool under pressure, a relentless competitor, and visionary enough to comprehend the complexity of the world he faces every day. He answered every distortion, untruth and oversimplification Romney put forward. The distinction was so stark—Pres. Obama forcefully telling truth, with dignity and aplomb, Mitt Romney insisting on absurd claims, rudely interrupting, refusing to give specifics—the audience applauded when Romney was caught in a lie and corrected.

It was a severe embarrassment for the challenger and for his party, as the polls had started to show his first debate performance might have made him into a more credible candidate. The Hofstra debate, however, revealed what many astute observers believed all along—that the first debate was a blown opportunity for the president, and that he will not miss again.

Obama landed punch after punch, forcing Romney into defensive positions on women’s rights, healthcare, economic recovery policy, financial regulatory reform, taxes, even on the possible revival of a federal assault weapons ban. (Romney signed one into law in Massachusetts but now refuses to even discuss the matter as a presidential candidate, and Obama surprised many by calling for a reintroduction of the legislation in Congress.)

The most Romney was willing to say about how to prevent AK-47 assault rifles and other firearms from falling into the hands of narcoterrorist gangs and people with severe mental and emotional disorders was that he believed marriage would do the trick. So, the relentless trafficking of firearms across state lines, and from the southern border states into the Mexican black market is somehow linked to whether young couples get married before having children.

Romney would not give such absurd and unbelievable answers, were he not so desperate to force himself on the psyche of American voters. In other words, had he something of substance to say, he would probably say it.

Perhaps most indicative of Obama’s overwhelming victory on point after point was the moment when the president turned the tables on the nagging gasoline-price issue: of course, he said, gas prices were low when he took office, because the economy was in the midst of its worst collapse since the Great Depression (less consumer wealth, lower prices, by necessity); maybe Romney’s policies would bring prices to artificially low levels, Obama quipped, because they just might put us right back in that same kind of mess.

That degree of rhetorical jujitsu is first of all a sign of true contact with the realities of policy making, second: a sign that the speaker is ready to govern, and third: indicative of how feeble Romney’s arguments were. While the president laid out point by point what is happening and how he will continue to govern, Romney blipped and dodged, offering literally no genuine specifics at all about taxes (his only economic plan) or foreign policy (where Obama is far more trusted).

On women’s issues, Romney managed an astonishing failure of outreach, actually confessing that in order to learn of the existence of women qualified to work in his administration in Massachusetts, he needed consultants to put together “binders full of women”. Apparently, Romney himself was unacquainted with talented, top-flight professional women; Obama, by contrast, came into office surrounded by, married to and in constant contact with such women leaders.

Romney flat-out refused to address gender pay equity, and even explicitly stated his understanding that women need flexible schedules because they have to cook dinner. Pres. Obama, by contrast, explained that such issues are not just women’s issues or “pocketbook issues”, but that they are family issues and affect the real quality of life and opportunity for women and for those around them.

Another stark contrast came on the question of how to build a long-term economic recovery. While the president laid out, over and over, how manufacturing, clean energy, and education, are fundamental requirements for building a viable and thriving 21st century middle class economy (“winning the future”), Romney discounted each of these, talking about how businesses feel “uncomfortable” with hiring Americans, because wages are too high, almost extolling the virtues of moving “offshore”.

On point after point, Romney offered only the equivalent of vague statements to the effect of “I want it to be better than that”, while going on to suggest policies that would not sort the problem out for anyone but the most privileged. Romney was extremely defensive, even hostile, and seemed to have adopted, since the last debate, an attitude of entitlement to unfettered power, on the basis of the only round of polling in 5 years that brought him even with Barack Obama.

In an unbelievable collapse of tactical judgment, which Romney is likely to regret for a long time, when he was thrown a major softball, in the form of a question about what misimpression he most needs to correct, Romney defensively and foolishly avoided warming himself to the audience and instead said he is on the side of “the 100 percent”, an obvious reference to his defamation of 47 percent of the population.

That allowed Pres. Obama—who had been sportsmanlike enough not to have raised the mind-boggling gaffe—to finish his final answer with an attack on Romney’s lack of understanding of the contribution senior citizens, veterans and millions of middle class and working families, have made to the nation. Obama had the last word, and made a clear case: he does not want government to run the private affairs of anyone; he wants government to be worthy of citizens, families and small businesses, giving them the support and protection they need in an all-too-often unjust world, whereas Mitt Romney wants to use government to help the already wealthy and powerful.

Perhaps the most significant miscalculation made by Mitt Romney, his party and his campaign, culminating in last night’s debate debacle, is their assumption that a flippant and even hostile attitude towards women’s issues will not affect their performance in key battleground states. In fact, it is clear that Romney does not understand that women in the battleground states, and yes, even in the deep and committed “red states”, might actually think of themselves as something more than case studies stuffed into binders by consultants or people whose main purpose in life is cooking dinner.

(UPDATE, Thurs., Oct. 18, 2012—Two of the women who worked for the unnamed “women’s groups” Romney said he asked his staff to consult, and which produced the “binders full of women” said Romney was lying in the debate. In fact, they say, the binders were presented to Romney, because he was not considering even one woman for any post in his administration, and they intended to educate him about the qualified candidates for those positions.

Romney also claimed, while governor, that by the time he left office, women in his administration would correspond to the percentage of women in the population of Massachusetts. When he left office, the share of Romney administration jobs held by women was 25 percent.

Gov. Romney reportedly said that only when companies are truly desperate do they hire women at all, a remark that lines up with his repeated use of the word “if” when talking about women in the workplace. On the Sunday before this week’s debate, a top Romney aide said the campaign’s attitude was that women’s reproductive and health rights were “shiny objects” meant to distract voters from issues of real importance.)

On immigration, Romney made the bizarre assertion that “magnets, like drivers licenses” were the main cause of “illegals” (a dehumanizing slur which does not appear in American law or judicial precedent) coming to the United States. This demonstrates an incredibly irrational disregard for the grave and challenging circumstances immigrants face in traveling to the United States and all-too-often living in the shadows without the protection of our laws.

Then, he went on to throw aside his party’s whole list of priorities on immigration, saying that undocumented immigrants should simply choose whether they want to stay or go. Whether Romney has a policy on immigration at all now seems best explained by Pres. Obama’s assertion that Romney has no policy on immigration at all, and little to no interest in immigrants or what drives immigration, by routes documented or undocumented.

While it is likely not true that even one immigrant ever came to the United States in order to obtain a driver’s license, Romney’s mention of the “magnets” fallacy is itself deeply troubling: the magnets for immigrants to the United States have always included democratic freedom, the rule of law, economic opportunity, quality education and healthcare, in short: the American dream of social mobility and entering safely and securely, in the course of just one or two generations, into a functioning middle class.

Would Romney “turn off” the magnets of democracy, opportunity, education and the middle class? Would that not cause deep and pervasive harm to the nation and to its people? Does he even comprehend the significance of his assertions?

The single most significant achievement of the two presidential debates so far is Obama’s solidification of his central point about Mitt Romney: he is a man of privilege who, whenever given a chance, reveals that he believes the rules are different for him. Romney, for his part, has voluntarily added the disturbing sense that whenever he is pressed, even slightly, his character reveals itself in a rash of irrational bullying.

If you are an independent voter who prizes principle and substance over bluster and fluff, Barack Obama would appear to have shown himself to be the only candidate worthy of your vote in this year’s contest for the presidency. There is a difference between Obama’s weak performance in the first debate and Romney’s near unraveling last night: Obama had an off night; Romney revealed deep flaws in his moral character and showed himself to be a know-nothing bully, not even remotely presidential material.

The vote is yours; the truth is out there.

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