A week ago, I asked
, “Can Obama fight”? I’m pleased—and immensely relieved—to report now, “Yes, he can!”
He’s endured relentless, senseless bashing for four years. Last night, the President finally stood up for himself, for us, and for what he’s tried so hard to do for us over unprecedented, lockstep opposition. David Brooks, the conservative PBS commentator who remains the most honest of his breed, said the President won.
That’s about all you need to know about last night. Biden stopped the bloodletting, and the President finally drew some blood of his own.
It looks now as if Obama will retain his office. He can continue his exhausting and incremental work, over the adamant opposition of crazed extremists in the House, whom Republicans promoted and elected to make voters forget the absolutely catastrophic record of their last president.
For me, the climactic moment last night came in the inevitable “character” question at the end. (Apparently it has become routine to insert a character question late in the debate. It’s a good tradition.) A townhall undecided voter asked both candidates to identify and rebut what they saw as the biggest misconception about them.
Mitt began by trying to disclaim his well-publicized 47%-don’t-matter gaffe.
His effort fell flat. He was getting tired, and his eager master-salesman mask was slipping off. When he protested how much he cared about the little people, he just wasn’t persuasive, at least to me.
But more telling was what Mitt did immediately after trying to fake sincere charity for the nth time. He complained about the President attacking him and his record of flip-flops and lies. Then he forgot about character entirely. He launched into an extended bashing of the President’s record, repeating all the attacking points he had made earlier in the debate.
I don’t know how many viewers noticed the contradiction. But it was a red flag for me. Here was a man who had spent his entire electoral campaign, including all the primaries, relentlessly bashing the President. He leads a party that publicly declared making the President fail its main goal just days after his inauguration.
For four years, the GOP has opposed the President’s every initiative (except the first stimulus), no matter how many of its own ideas were in it. For four years, it has done its best to ape Goebbels and associate the word “failure” with the President by mind-numbing repetition.
And here was Mitt, complaining in a tired and beaten voice that the President had had the temerity to repeat something that Mitt himself had said, in his inner sanctum, among his strongest supporters, when presumably he would be the most sincere.
Mitt sounded like a beaten whiner, the bully who cries when his victim finally hits back. Then, just like a bully, he replied with a volley of punches of his own. How in character!
The President was having none of it. In his final statement, he repeated Mitt’s 47% gaffe. He noted the strong circumstantial evidence of its sincerity: a closed meeting with strong supporters. He pointed out that the “takers” Mitt disparaged were a near-majority of the middle class he claims to care about.
For once the President didn’t balk at delivering a knockout punch. The debate was over, and it was all his.
Many viewers may have missed a short jab of the President’s earlier in the debate. The President had accused Mitt of having investments in Chinese job-stealers. Mitt protested that his money was in a blind trust. Like a schoolboy challenging a rival, he asked whether the President knew what was in his own pension portfolio.
The President replied with a smile, "no, but yours is bigger than mine.” There was scattered laughter. In just a few words—and with the only humor of the evening—the President made crystal clear who is the plutocrat and who (though president) is upper middle class. The President also showed his complete lack of concern with his investment portfolio, which is likely at the very bottom of his list of personal priorities.
No doubt fearing loss of funding for PBS if Mitt wins, the commentators bent over backwards to be “balanced.” Marks Shields, the Dems’ pundit, said he heard the President overuse the first-person pronoun “I.”
I didn’t. Obama is, after all, President of the United States. He can hardly refer to himself by his title, in the third person.
heard was Mitt say, at least three times “I know what it takes . . .” to improve things. Toward the end, a fourth time, he varied it somewhat: “I understand
what it takes . . .”
These remarks all came at crucial moments in the debate over substance, about jobs, energy and gasoline prices, equality for women, foreign policy, and how to handle China. Sometimes there were a few specifics. Sometimes there were vague plans, five bullet points with no details at all.
For me, it all added up to a master salesman’s “trust me” plea. He hadn’t closed the deal with any persuasive details of policy. The President had demolished his tax plan, showing beyond refute that Mitt’s numbers couldn’t possibly add up. The President had exposed the hollowness of Mitt’s vague five points and the contradictions with his earlier positions.
So Mitt retreated to the scoundrel salesman’s last refuge, after the still-confused would-be customer has refuted all his talking points:
“Trust me. Aren’t I smart? Aren’t I handsome? Don’t you like my smile?”
“I’ve made myself rich, and I’m a super competent guy. Haven’t I told you so, again and again?”
“I can’t reveal the details until you put me in office. Then I’ll make everything right. Just trust me.”
Mitt claims to be a smart businessman. But any business that hired an employee based on that sort of pitch would have to be run by an idiot, especially when the job is the most important in the world.
And so the President pointed out, in somewhat different words. They stung.
Surprisingly, Mitt managed to survive the evening without major gaffes. But he did make one telling “gaffette.” In recounting what had amounted to his own affirmative action plan as governor of Massachusetts, he recalled how he had asked for and received “binders full of women” to consider for his cabinet.
Out of the mouths of babes . . . A Freudian slip, maybe?
Or maybe it was a real insight into the psyche of a corporate downsizer. For business-school “products” like Mitt, employees—especially women—are mere entries in a register, not people to be treasured and nurtured. They are ciphers in profit-and-loss statements, entries in “binders” that let people like Mitt do what’s really
important to them: make themselves rich.
In my four years practicing law in California’s Silicon Valley, I worked with many business people from firms large and small. Some were admirable, and some were scoundrels. But I never heard any
of them refer to employees as entries in a binder. Only a man who cares about abstractions (and money) more than people could do that.
I could review the debate’s substance in more detail, but what good would it do? Voters who decide on policy have decided long ago. Many have already voted. From here on out, it’s the music that matters, far more than the words.
The President got the music right this time. Politely but firmly, he contradicted every lie and highlighted every flip-flop. His bearing and gaze followed his words.
He let Mitt get away with nothing. He attracted all the necessary demographic groups—women, poorer people, and Latinos—by pointing out Mitt’s opposition to the Lilly Ledbetter Act, his pledge to defund Planned Parenthood and his eagerness to get undocumented immigrants to “self-deport.”
In the end, the President skillfully revealed Mitt for what he is: an overconfident lover of abstract theory, who thinks he has the answers to everything, but knows and cares little about real people and their struggles. That was the very same face that Mitt’s running mate, Paul Ryan, had showed
the week before. In fact, it’s the same face the GOP has showed the nation for thirty years.
Forcing real people in a complex, diverse society into a mold of abstract theory didn’t work so well for Soviet Russia. It hasn’t worked so well for us. It doesn’t seem to matter what the abstract and simplistic theory is
, whether the Soviets’ Communism or the GOP’s strange brand of profit-and-loss corporatism.
People are not ciphers, to be folded up in binders and tied up in neat bundles of abstract economic theory. Maybe with this election, we’ll see the beginning of the end of our own “Soviet period
” and get back to our national birthright: a mature and enlightened pragmatism that leaves no one behind.
Commentators panned the iciness of the relationship between the two debaters, and one said he worried that someone might actually throw a punch.
But what would you expect from campaign that has been relentlessly negative on both sides?
What would you expect when the GOP’s negativity began but days after Obama’s taking office, and has lasted now for almost four years? What would you expect when Mitt—having no national record or experience of his own, and understandably refusing to run on his party’s record or Dubya’s—for two years has been relentlessly bashing the President for his inability to make miracles over entrenched opposition?
Nobody smiles when the victim finally hits the playground bully back and the bully begins to cry. But discomfort at open conflict soon yields to a sense of sober satisfaction that justice has been done.
So it was last night. And so it will be when the GOP’s high-risk “chutzpah” campaign
crashes and burns, and that party, old but no longer grand, begins to think about how to reform itself, abandon its extremism, and meet the nation’s and the people’s real needs.