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In all of the “Rocky” films, there was a point in every final bout where we thought The Italian Stallion was done for. He’d get into the ring, and get pummeled for awhile. He’d dance around his opponent, almost daring them to hit him, and invariably they’d land a brutal blow or two. But at some point the dam would burst, and Rocky would hit the point of no return. That’s when you could bet on guitars to start blaring and for some tenor-voiced singer to start telling us not to give up on our protagonist.
The first presidential debate was obviously the final punch that Obama had to take.
At least that’s the impression I got from President Obama tonight. He was indeed far more energetic, and far less conciliatory of Mitt Romney’s points. He made sure, with the help of Ms. Crowley’s quite ingenious selection of questions, to deftly point out not just where Romney has lied about Obama’s record, but about Romney’s own campaign record. In fact, that is the most startling change between First Debate Obama and Second Debate Obama; he was willing to put Mitt’s record on trial. And the results were exactly what Democrats were so desperate for in the first round.
Romney appeared to get flustered, and that was most apparent when he was either whining to or trying to railroad his answers over Candy Crowley’s quite deft moderation. You want to know how good Candy was tonight? Without even watching it, I’m sure Fox News is spinning that she was cheerleading, and obviously playing sides when she correctly pointed out that in fact President Obama had called the attack in Libya a terrorist attack. That, Mr. Romney, is what real-time fact checking looks like, and you just caught with your pants down. (Love the Mickey Mouse Magic Underwear though)
In all phases of the debate, Obama looked like he had done nothing but watch Facebook and other social media outlets, taking in every complaint from every blogger and commentator on discussion threads. He spoke to Mitt Romney’s complete lack of credibility on women’s issues and had specifics examples, de-funding Planned Parenthood for starters, that demonstrated Mitt’s duplicity. Romney, tried as he might to disengage from answering the questions, was caught in a couple of key moments in his previous positions, no more devastatingly than in Obama’s final remark of the night, in which Romney was indicted by the commander-in-chief himself for his “47%” remarks.
But let’s back up to what I feel is probably the most seminal moment in the debate, and one that shows the sharp contrast between Mitt and Barack. That moment was during the exchange over when the Obama administration first mentioned that the attack in Libya was a terrorist attack. Romney, ever the attack dog (is this what Mitt looked like when he was antagonizing the gay kid in school all those years ago?), kept pouncing after President Obama about whether he had actually said in the Rose Garden the very next day that our consular building had been the victim of an act of terror.
Here’s the transcript of the exchange:
OBAMA: Secretary Clinton has done an extraordinary job. But she works for me. I’m the president and I’m always responsible, and that’s why nobody’s more interested in finding out exactly what happened than I do.
The day after the attack, governor, I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people in the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened. That this was an act of terror and I also said that we’re going to hunt down those who committed this crime.
And then a few days later, I was there greeting the caskets coming into Andrews Air Force Base and grieving with the families.
And the suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the Secretary of State, our U.N. Ambassador, anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own, governor, is offensive. That’s not what we do. That’s not what I do as president, that’s not what I do as Commander in Chief.
CROWLEY: Governor, if you want to…
ROMNEY: Yes, I — I…
CROWLEY: … quickly to this please.
ROMNEY: I — I think interesting the president just said something which — which is that on the day after the attack he went into the Rose Garden and said that this was an act of terror.
OBAMA: That’s what I said.
ROMNEY: You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack, it was an act of terror.
It was not a spontaneous demonstration, is that what you’re saying?
OBAMA: Please proceed governor.
ROMNEY: I want to make sure we get that for the record because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.
OBAMA: Get the transcript.
CROWLEY: It — it — it — he did in fact, sir. So let me — let me call it an act of terror…
OBAMA: Can you say that a little louder, Candy?
CROWLEY: He — he did call it an act of terror. It did as well take — it did as well take two weeks or so for the whole idea there being a riot out there about this tape to come out. You are correct about that.
In that one moment we all got to witness what each of these men is truly like under pressure. Romney, thinking he had an advantage to call Obama out for lying, pressed too hard and in his attack looked rabid and a little shaken. Then to add to insult to his injury, he was fact checked in real-time and proven to be full of shit. In front of a huge national audience. Everyone heard the laughter and cheers when President Obama, in a very cool and calm manner, asked Ms. Crowley to repeat herself.
The biggest score of the night was actually an alley-oop from President Obama to Candy Crowley.
The right will of course say this is proof Crowley’s bias. But consider the facts. Consider that Romney truly did think he had Obama on the hot seat. And without having to yell, scream or get in his face, Obama could let Crowley deliver the knockout punch for him. And to her credit, Crowley did point out where Romney was correct, but the distinction of timeline is critical to understanding what the GOP has been doing all along: laying down a smokescreen of distortion and hoping people only pay enough attention to hear the talking points. After last night, one thing is clear: President Obama doesn’t plan to pass up any more opportunities to expose Mitt Romney.
Is this one performance enough to hand the leads back to Obama that he had before two weeks ago? Probably not. This is a polarized, partisan political landscape we have. But no mistake can be made that at least the official historical record will show that the forty-fourth president of our nation was not weak; was not beaten down by the stresses of the jobs, he was just off his game that one night.
Maybe the most important aspect of Obama’s very clear victory tonight was that he finally made it clear as day that Romney is the worst kind of thing you can be in politics: uncommitted. For almost two years he ran to the hard right of every issue. He said immigrants should self deport. He said he thought life began at conception. He said forty-seven percent of us are entitled moochers. And then two weeks ago he tried to launch Mitt 2.0. This shows that clearly Mitt isn’t beholden to any viewpoint on any issue…not that we needed this debate to be reminded, but maybe now the undecided (read: lazy) voter can see that it’s not all MSNBC hype. That Romney is indeed not the same man to the rest of the world as he is to the right wing’s base.
As we watch the polling data over the next few days, the moment that will replay over and over is Crowley doing in twenty seconds what the entire Obama administration has been trying to do for the last few months. That is a moment that will resonate louder than Big Bird or Malarkey. It will resonate because throughout our country’s history truth does in fact will out. And that is who the real winner was tonight.