It really was that bad for Romney, who, by the end of the night looked a bit crumpled in spirit, a tad sweaty and hapless at the hands of a youthful but commanding opponent. And Obama successfully painted Romney as maybe a bit over the hill, comparing Romney’s worldview to policies from eras past, ranging from the 1770s to the 1980s, in quips that yielded the night’s social media memes, involving calvary, hair gel, and lots of gifs.
Romney entered the debate with a difficult agenda, one that demanded he reconcile the bellicose positions he adopted, in order to assure the support of the war-happy right-wing base, with his newly moderate persona, adopted in the final days of the campaign so as not to alienate swing voters, particularly women, who tend to be pretty down on war.
During the Republican primary season, Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom famously promised that come the general election campaign, Romney would reset his Etch A Sketch. In this debate, the Etch A Sketch was indeed shaken, but Romney never much got past a blank screen.
In a number of instances, he found himself agreeing with the president’s policies — even those on which he previously drew sharp contrasts, as in his prior hardline on Iran — while trying to differentiate himself from Obama. It turned out to be a formula for disaster on Romney’s part.
Many have made the observation that Romney will say anything to get elected. But in order for that to work, he would have to do so with conviction, and he just couldn’t muster that attitude on Monday night.
Romney seemed to go into the Florida debate with a hangover from last week’s second debate, which liberals saw as an Obama win, even if mainstream media figures did not. There, in a debate moderated by CNN’s Candy Crowley at New York’s Hofstra University, Romney was brought up short when he falsely asserted that Obama had never dubbed the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, an act of terror until two weeks after the incident. Crowley fact-checked him, the right called foul, and Romney never quite recovered. That drubbing appeared to have affected his performance in his final face-to-face with Obama, who seemed energized by the result of last week’s rhetorical contest.
For his part, Obama served up some moments of deft evasion, as when he virtually ignored a question about the controversial drone warfare his administration has pursued with gusto, and implying that his adminstration had never sought to leave a sizeable contingent of U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq, when it had.
But as untruths and evasions when, Romney repeated some familiar, debunked themes: the false accusation that Obama opened his foreign policy with an “apology tour” of the Middle East (“the biggest whopper of the campaign,” Obama retorted), or the outright lie that the president promised an unemployment rate of 5.3 percent. He notably avoided the misstatement that hung him up in the last debate and, suprisingly, abandoned much of his past criticism of the administration’s response to the Libya attack.
And curiously, despite the crisis that now confronts the Eurozone and voters’ concerns with the state of the economy, Schieffer did not ask one question about American policy toward Europe, whose economy is inextricably linked to that of the U.S.
Here are Obama’s five most memorable lines from Monday’s debate:
1. Horses and bayonets. The progressive blogosphere was set snarkily and gleefully a-Twitter with Obama’s response to Romney’s claim that Obama seeks to gut the military. As proof, Romney offered the factoid that the Navy now has few ships than at any time since 1916. Obama replied:
Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.
As he described planes landing on aircraft carriers, Obama made a gesture with his hands illustrating the landing, in case Romney required a visual aid. Romney’s color began to rise, and his skin began to look dewey.
With the horses and bayonets line, Obama also tied Romney to the imagery of the Tea Party movement, for whose members the sound of the fife and drum is music to their ears.
The Obama campaign purchased the URL, cavalrymenforromney.com.
And a Tumblr was born.
2. The 80s are calling… In an exchange over who would be tougher on al Qaeda, Obama reminded viewers that Romney recently cited a different foe as America’s Enemy Number One:
Governor Romney, I’m glad that you recognize that al Qaeda is a threat, because a few months ago when you were asked what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not al Qaeda — you said Russia…And the 1980s, they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.
In two quips, then, Obama placed Romney’s foreign policy in every era but the here and now. Summoning the 80s brought forth images of skinny ties and fiercely gelled hair — and a time inextricably linked with an elderly president.
3. Wrong and reckless and all over the map. Both men, in a bid for the votes of women, sought to depict themselves as peacemakers. (While polls still show Obama winning among women, his percentages have dropped over the past two weeks.)
As part of the volley over al Qaeda, Obama sought to paint Romney as a man who would embark on risky adventures, throwing Romney’s primary-season rhetoric back at him. Romney, for his part, has been blaming unrest in the Middle East and North Africa — from Syria to Libya to Egypt to Iran — on Obama, who hit back hard (emphasis added):
You said that we should still have troops in Iraq to this day. You indicated that we shouldn’t be passing nuclear treaties with Russia despite the fact that 71 senators, Democrats and Republicans, voted for it. You said that, first, we should not have a timeline in Afghanistan. Then you said we should. Now you say maybe or it depends, which means not only were you wrong, but you were also confusing in sending mixed messages both to our troops and our allies. So, what we need to do with respect to the Middle East is strong, steady leadership, not wrong and reckless leadership that is all over the map.
4. Exploiting his opponent’s age and inexperience. Ronald Reagan, the oldest person ever to win the presidency, famously deflected a question about his age in the 1980 presidential debate by pledging not “to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” In October 2012, Obama offered a post-millennial mash-up on the theme. In addition to painting Romney as a relic of eras past, Obama offered this (emphasis added), which had the added punch of tying Romney to an unpopular war:
You say that you’re not interested in duplicating what happened in Iraq. But just a few weeks ago, you said you think we should have more troops in Iraq right now. And the challenge we have – I know you haven’t been in a position to actually execute foreign policy – but every time you’ve offered an opinion, you’ve been wrong. You said we should have gone into Iraq, despite that fact that there were no weapons of mass destruction.
5. Cheney as a font of wisdom. In a segment in which he laid out his domestic policy agenda in foreign policy terms, Obama emphasized his attempts to “rebuild America,” support clean coal technologies and balance the budget. In drawing a contrast with his opponent, Obama invoked the image of one of the most disliked figures in American politics, former Vice President Dick Cheney, champion of the Iraq war, who left office in 2009 with an approval rating of 13 percent. Here’s Obama (emphasis added):
Now, Governor Romney has taken a different approach throughout this campaign. Both at home and abroad, he has proposed wrong and reckless policies. He’s praised George Bush as a good economic steward and Dick Cheney as somebody who shows great wisdom and judgment. And taking us back to those kinds of strategies that got us into this mess are not the way that we are going to maintain leadership in the 21st century.
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Despite Obama’s big win in the final debate, as AlterNet’s Joshua Holland writes, it’s hard to know whether or not it will have any impact on the outcome of the election. And for all of the points that he scored, Obama did not come off as particularly likeable in this or any of the other debates, apparently unable to integrate the day-to-day personality that Americans — even those who disagree with him — appreciate, according to the polls.
Just last week, in a campaign appearance that will be forever memorialized as the Romnesia speech, Obama demonstrated how his native snark and likeability could occupy the same space. But that’s not the face he put before the tens of millions of people who tuned in for the debates.
But as the race comes down to the wire, there are few voters left to persuade, especially in the polarized environment, where the numbers of undecided voters have been tiny from the get-go. In the end, it will be turnout in a handful of states that will have the greatest impact on the outcome — and Obama tonight may have just given the people who see the world as he does more of a reason to show up on election day.