Last night’s debate rematch between President Obama and Mitt Romney was a great piece of theater. Content, narrative, tension, staging, supporting performances from an array of New York-accented character actors — it had it all. The larger story line hovering over the debate — a “must win” for Obama after his disastrous performance at the first debate, or whichever of the dozens of sports metaphors you prefer — would have provided stakes even if this particular Town Hall had turned out to be a dry, boring or, propelled by the questions of regular folk, silly affair. But as soon as nervous 20-year-old New Yawker Jeremy opened his mouth and tremblingly asked about his job prospects, nearly becoming a Twitter trending topic in the process, it was clear that on its own merits, this debate was going to be something to see.
In the last debate, the tone was set early on and maintained throughout. Romney — clear, authoritative, comfortable — was on his game. Obama — meandering, dull, off-point — was not. It took longer for the character, and winner, of last night’s contest to emerge. Romney, who took the first question from young Jeremy, personally promising him a job, sounded much as he had in the first debate. The change was, as ever, with Obama. From his first answer, the president was operating at a much higher energy level than last time and with much more focus. He immediately began by numbering his responses, an easy tactic Romney used very effectively in the first debate to make what he said comprehensible. Sure, Obama told Jeremy about manufacturing jobs, which aren’t what he needs, but at least he ended by firmly telling Romney “that’s just not true.”
So far, so civilized, but then Romney took the lessons of his victory two weeks ago a little too far. First, he mistook moderator Candy Crowley for Jim Lehrer and tried to run all over her, which she didn’t allow, making him look extremely condescending. Second, he tried a new tactic of directly addressing the president as though he were a dissenting witness, simultaneously elevating the debate into a great stage drama, and making himself seem rude.
The first tangle came when Romney pressed Obama specifically on how much he had cut permits for oil drilling on federal lands. Romney was trying to get Obama to say “14 percent,” but Obama had his own talking points, and tried to give a more complicated answer. Then Romney kept interrupting — "I had a question, and it was how much did you cut them by" — as though he were expecting a judge to hop in and say, “the witness will answer only the question that was asked.” Romney opened the door for Obama, and then tried to control everything that followed, an impossibility that made him seem disrespectful. “I’m not done speaking. You’ll get your chance. That wasn’t a question, that was a statement,” he said to the president of the United States.
Debates are so structured, so circumscribed, that anything that veers off script can feel breathtaking, even a little spat about oil permits. This confrontation between Romney and Obama — the first of many — felt transgressive, electric. My Twitter feed filled up with, “Oh, shits!” because, in this context, two guys in suits trying to get their dry policy points across while facing off on a stage set seemed as out of bounds as a Real Housewife tossing a table. It was a moment of lesser propriety — when two people with different perspectives who have been fighting for months and probably don’t like each other actually seemed not to like each other that much. Obvious as that is, it was still energizing to see it enacted so baldly.
The confrontation seemed to amp up Obama further. He got in some good lines, said the words “Sketchy” and “gangbanger,” and though he too tried to pushed Crowley around, he did so in a more polite fashion. Meanwhile, Romney started walking straight into Michael Scott territory. He hectored Candy Crowley into giving him a chance to say the phrase, "I appreciate wind jobs,” a Michael Scott-ism if there ever was one. (He also referred to having a "binder of women," which I sure wish was just a Michael Scott-ism.) Later, in the night’s zingiest exchange, he asked Obama about the size of his pension, giving Obama the opportunity to use, possibly for the first time ever, “it's not as big as yours" as a putdown. If only Romney had actually been Michael Scott in that moment, he would have known how to reply.
Obama was aided by the questions, which came from allegedly “undecided” voters, but seemed to skew Democratic, no big surprise in New York state. But it was the question that should have been a slam dunk for Romney, on Benghazi, that has been taken by the punditry as the real knockout punch of the evening. Certainly, it was the moment that Obama’s brand of self-contained alpha-maleness — in which even absolute fury manifest as finding something “offensive” — got the better of Romney’s more standard, know-it-all alpha-maleness. In the exchange, Romney accused Obama of going on the campaign trail just a day after the events in Benghazi. Obama got as angry as he ever does, and with all the authority and power the presidency has given him, told Romney so, in an answer that was heartfelt and heated. (Sometimes, there’s nothing like being the president to give a person gravitas.) Romney chose this moment to again use his ill-conceived president-as-opposing-witness strategy to say it took Obama two weeks to call the attack an “act of terror” — which it hadn’t. Candy Crowley came in with the fact check, the debate Obama was winning already was officially won, and the nation got its sound bite.
For the remainder of the spectacle, Romney seemed flustered, doing what Obama did in the first debate, meandering, focusing on answering specific, irrelevant charges. And then, in his closing statements, he claimed to care about 100 percent of Americans, opening the door for Obama to finally, uncontested, bring up the 47 percent, and end the night as strong as he started.