Confronted with a do-or-die debate on Oct. 3, an energized Mitt Romney surprised America — and that lifeless opponent standing to his left. You knew that President Barack Obama, confronting a similar ultimatum Tuesday night at Hofstra University, would display more energy. Asked and answered.
As these minutes unfolded, though, we tried to look past the reassuring theatrics — yes, this debate engaged both men, and neither stumbled — to explore three hard questions facing voters:
Would Obama talk about Romney or about ... Obama? On Oct. 3, the president spoke four minutes longer than Romney did, but obsessed on trying to undercut his opponent rather than defending his own record. This time Obama offered stronger defenses of his policies and performance and four times accused Romney of saying things that are not true.
For all the jousting, we wish Obama had acknowledged that his plan to raise taxes on high-income Americans would eliminate only about one-tenth of the annual federal deficit. That said, we also wish Romney had offered more specifics on the deductions and loopholes he'd limit to pay for his most ambitious goal, broad cuts in tax rates.
Neither man told Americans about the sacrifices on the horizon: Obama didn't admit that federal spending, and specifically spending on Medicare and Social Security, is unsustainable without major reforms. Romney didn't admit that his tax plan includes anticipated revenue increases from a growing economy — a pleasant hope but still a hope — to avoid creating more debt.
Which Romney would take the stage — optimistic and commanding, or flummoxed and remote from his audience?
The presence of a stronger Obama didn't create a weaker Romney. He was at his best when repeatedly steering attention to promises that Obama had made but hasn't fulfilled. Romney ticked off a long list: the pledge to halve annual deficits that instead have doubled, the prediction that unemployment by now would be well below 6 percent, the promise to put forth a comprehensive immigration plan in Year One, the assurance that the agony of home foreclosures would diminish, the suggestion that household income would rise. "If you elect President Obama, you know what you're going to get," Romney told Americans. "... This is a president who has not been able to do what he said he would do."
Do voters have a choice of two agendas, or merely of two men? Liberal pundits in particular had goaded Obama to specify fresh ambitions that would justify a second term ("When did Obama lose 'the vision thing'?" snapped The Washington Post's Ezra Klein). But this format proved an inclement place for new proposals. The discussion was spirited, the talking points familiar. Viewers did, though, see both men at their best, taking questions from Main Street Americans worried about issues close to their lives: jobs, gasoline prices, taxes and — the unifying theme — fears for the United States of tomorrow.
We'll know soon whether Obama stopped the bleeding that began Oct. 3: Romney holds a small but persistent lead in the RealClearPolitics polling averages — thanks in part to a swing toward him among women in battleground states. That trend explains both men's overt appeals to women voters Tuesday night.
Choose your own winner, then, and be grateful: This month's debates have animated what had been a dispiriting slog to Nov. 6. The final round comes next Monday in hard-fought Florida.Copyright © 2015, RedEye