So the second debate is over and the inevitable question is: Who won?
The choices are Obama, Romney, Crowley, or the American people.
Strengths: He was more engaged and animated. Unlike the first debate, he didn’t act like it was an imposition to simply be there. Mr. Obama was ready with answers to most questions, Libya and Fast and Furious being two notable exceptions. He was able to continue to paint Mr. Romney as a friend to the wealthy and an enemy to the middle class. He was able to once again question Romney’s tax plan and the math that lies behind it. He was also able to connect with women who are single-issue voters and tell them exactly what they wanted to hear.
Weaknesses: He seemed hostile, like the debate was a personal affront. For a President who has made his reputation as being cool, he seemed very hot tonight. Of course, after the first debate, I’m sure his coaches told him to do that, and I’m sure his base will be very happy that he was aggressive.
He also made some factually inaccurate statements that will be easy fodder for attack ads and talk shows. For example, his description of the Arizona immigration law was incorrect. Police were not allowed to stop and question anybody based on the “appearance” of being illegal, as Mr. Obama claimed. The law actually said that police had the ability to verify immigration status only if, after contacting the person for another reason (the most common example being a traffic stop), they had reason to suspect their immigration status.
However, law enforcement cannot stop a person purely because they suspect the individual is an illegal immigrant. There must be some state or local ordinance or law and there must be reasonable suspicion of the individual breaking the law. More importantly, the Arizona immigration law SB1070 text implies that law enforcement must not consider race, national origin, or color when enforcing these provisions, except in ways that are permitted by the United States Constitution or the Arizona Constitution.
This provision was upheld by the US Supreme Court.
In another example, when answering the question about inequity in the workplace, Mr. Obama said that Romney wanted employers to make the decisions about whether to fund contraception as part of health care. While true, there was some needed context omitted. The controversy over funding contraception is directly connected to the religious freedom of the institutions providing insurance. Should they be forced to violate their religious principles in order to comply with the law? If so, what does this mean for the First Amendment protections for the free exercise of religion? (I wrote about this issue here.)
This issue was also covered in the Vice Presidential debate. Mr. Biden claimed that no religious institution would be forced to violate their beliefs, and Mr. Ryan replied, “Why would they keep suing you?”
Mr. Obama’s worst weaknesses were exposed on two issues, the first being the coordinated attacks on our Middle Eastern embassies and consulates. The press is focusing primarily on Benghazi, but we have to remember that other embassies were attacked at the same time. Asked point blank by Kerry Ladka, who denied extra security and why, Obama completely ducked the question, and it is a question that many in America want answered. Consider the following:
On September 14, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said that the attacks were driven by the video.
The Obama administration said Friday a full investigation to identify the perpetrators and ascertain the sequence of events in Libya had begun, but White House spokesman Jay Carney asserted there was no evidence that the Benghazi murders or the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on the anniversary of 9/11 were linked to organized terrorism.
Carney identified the inflammatory video, which denigrated the prophet Mohammed, as the spark that incited the violence and led to the Americans’ deaths. “These protests were in reaction to a video that had spread to the region,” he said. “The cause of the unrest was a video, and that continues today, as you know, as we anticipated. And it may continue for some time.”
Challenged by reporters to explain how the government affirmed that a video was the catalyst in Benghazi, the president’s spokesman said, “It’s not an assumption … What I’m telling you is this is under investigation. The unrest around the region has been in response to this video. We do not, at this moment, have information to suggest or to tell you that would indicate that any of this unrest was pre-planned.”
On September 16, The U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice made the rounds of the Sunday morning talk shows to spread that administration position that the attacks were a spontaneous reaction to the film “Innocence of Muslims” and were not pre-planned.
On September 20, President Obama was still linking the assault to the video, and referring to a riot during an interview on Univision.
On September 25, President Obama gave an address before the UN in which he said:
That is what we saw play out the last two weeks, as a crude and disgusting video sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world. I have made it clear that the United States government had nothing to do with this video, and I believe its message must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity.
There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents. There is no video that justifies an attack on an Embassy.
There was no mention of an organized, premeditated attack.
Over the same time period, we saw:
On September 12, CBS News and the Washington Post ran stories claiming that the assault in Benghazi was coordinated and that the attack may have been the work of al-Qaida, not a random mob that got out of control.
On September 13, CNN ran a story indicating that the US intelligence community and the State Department believed that the attack was pre-planned and carried out by a terrorist group.
A U.S. intelligence official told CNN the picture is becoming clearer within the intelligence community as to what group or groups were responsible for the attack. Given what officials know about al Qaeda in Libya, U.S. intelligence officials believe it is very unlikely that core al Qaeda was behind the attack, the official said.
State Department Under Secretary Patrick Kennedy said Wednesday that the attack appeared planned because it was so extensive and because of the “proliferation” of small and medium weapons at the scene. He was briefing congressional staffers when he offered that theory.
But on Thursday, three U.S. officials told CNN that they have seen no evidence the attack was premeditated.
Meanwhile, Shawn Turner, director of communications for U.S. National Intelligence, denied news reports that U.S. officials had been warned of a possible attack.
“This is absolutely wrong,” he said. “We are not aware of any actionable intelligence indicating that an attack on the U.S. post in Benghazi was planned or imminent.”
On September 16, Libya’s President claimed that the attack was pre-planned and well executed, not the result of mob violence.
I ask if this attack was over an anti-Muslim film that sparked violent protests across the Muslim world. He shakes his head.
“The idea that this criminal and cowardly act was a spontaneous protest that just spun out of control is completely unfounded and preposterous,” he says. “We firmly believe that this was a pre-calculated, pre-planned attack that was carried out specifically to attack the U.S. Consulate.”
The attackers used the protesters outside the consulate as a cover, he says.
“The intention was there from the beginning, for it to take this ugly barbaric, criminal form,” he says.
Megarif claims evidence shows that some elements of Ansar al-Sharia, an extremist group in eastern Benghazi, were used as tools by foreign citizens with ties to al-Qaida to attack the consulate and threaten Libya’s stability.
On September 17, Fox News published a report saying that there was no protest going on at the time of the attack.
The source said the assault came with no warning at about 9:35 p.m. local time, and included fire from more than two locations. The assault included RPG’s and mortar fire, the source said, and consisted of two waves.
The account that the attack started suddenly backs up claims by a purported Libyan security guard who told McClatchy Newspapers late last week that the area was quiet before the attack.
“There wasn’t a single ant outside,” the unnamed guard, who was being treated in a hospital, said in the interview.
These details appear to conflict with accounts from the Obama administration that the attack spawned from an out-of-control protest.
The McClatchy story referenced in the above quote is available here.
And finally, on September 26, the Daily Beast ran a story claiming that the Obama Administration had information confirming that the attack was a premeditated terrorist act within 24 hours of the attack.
Within 24 hours of the 9-11 anniversary attack on the United States consulate in Benghazi, U.S. intelligence agencies had strong indications al Qaeda—affiliated operatives were behind the attack, and had even pinpointed the location of one of those attackers. Three separate U.S. intelligence officials who spoke to The Daily Beast said the early information was enough to show that the attack was planned and the work of al Qaeda affiliates operating in Eastern Libya.
Nonetheless, it took until late last week for the White House and the administration to formally acknowledge that the Benghazi assault was a terrorist attack.
Apparently, everybody knew this was a planned terrorist attack except for the President and his staff.
When Mr. Obama told us that it was a terrorist attack, he didn’t tell us anything about the Benghazi attack that we hadn’t already found out through other sources.
The second issue was Fast and Furious. Mr. Romney opened up the issue when asked about gun control, a brilliant tactical move that took what could have been an Obama strong suit and made it a gaping liability for anybody who has been following the Fast and Furious story.
The short version of the story is that the BATFE conceived of a plan to try to end the flow of guns into Mexico by letting illegal purchases occur. Rather than confiscating the guns, agents would trace them into Mexico, and hopefully be able to identify high level traffickers and bring them to justice when the guns were used in a crime. The plan failed spectacularly, with two of the guns being found at the scene of a shootout that killed Border Patrolman Brian Terry. As of now, of over 2000 guns allowed to walk into Mexico, just over 600 have been found at crime scenes in Mexico and the United States. The rest are still out there.
Romney nailed the issue to Obama by mentioning that Mr. Obama has asserted executive privilege to withhold subpoenaed documents from Congress.
Obama had no response, and offered no rebuttal.
Strengths: Just as in the first debate, Mr. Romney was able to answer questions effectively, and he seemed to connect well with the questioners. His ability to address the questions directly was a huge asset. He once again directly engaged Mr. Obama and, while respectful, he challenged the president’s record of achievement, particularly on the economy. The pension conversation was a great example. When Mr. Obama made reference to Mr. Romney’s investments, Mr. Romney pointed out that Mr. Obama has many of the same types of investments in his pension plan. His final strength was the ability to run against Obama’s record. The economic numbers are truly dismal as Mr. Romney indicated in his answers,
We don’t have to settle for gasoline at four bucks. We don’t have to settle for unemployment at a chronically high level. We don’t have to settle for 47 million people on food stamps. We don’t have to settle for 50 percent of kids coming out of college not able to get work. We don’t have to settle for 23 million people struggling to find a good job.
There are 3.5 million more women living in poverty today than when the president took office.
We’re still down 580,000 jobs
The disaster in Benghazi was inexcusable and the attempt to “manage the story” was embarrassingly incompetent. Romney had the strongest line of the night: “We don’t have to settle for this.”
Weaknesses: Mr. Romney still can’t explain how his tax plan will work to increase revenues. He’s had plenty of time to come up with a succinct answer and he has failed to do so. That hurts his credibility. A similar weakness is his lack of detail on implementing his 5-point plan. I understand that he comes from a business background and I give him credit for that, but I still want details. A huge weakness, at least for me, is that our debt is so big that if interests rates move up at all, there’s no way we can pay the debt without massive spending cuts AND tax increases on everybody. Any answer that does not include both of these pieces is doomed to failure.
Romney did not make any major mistakes tonight, although he did get into the weeds a bit with the debate over drilling permits on federal lands. He pulled that one out by getting Mr. Obama to admit that yes, he had pulled existing permits.
Strengths: It appeared to me that she had an agenda and she achieved it.
Weaknesses: It appeared to me that she had an agenda. Here are a couple of examples. First, Philip Turcola’s question about lowering gas prices. Mr. Romney had just countered Mr. Obama’s answer very effectively, and Ms. Crowley tried to give Mr. Obama a mulligan on the issue. When Mr. Romney effectively countered again with the statement that if the President’s policies were working, then prices would be going down. And Ms. Crowley again gave Mr. Obama a chance to respond, and this time did not allow Mr. Romney to rebut.
The very next question, Ms. Crowley once again gave Mr. Obama a second chance to rebut Mr. Romney on the tax policy, with a followup that didn’t allow Mr. Romney to respond, but attacked the very premise of his plan.
As a final example, when Susan Cats asked about differences between Mr. Romney and Mr. Bush, Mr. Romney was given no chance to rebut because Ms. Crowley wanted to get to the next question.
The American People
Strengths: We heard both candidates present their plans in their own words. Mistakes, inaccuracies, and deceptive answers aside, we heard directly from them. We got to see them interact with each other and with an audience and to see which one was more able to handle the pressure, and in a way, more of an honest look at what each man is made of.
Weaknesses: Each one of the questions could have easily been discussed for 90 minutes. Eleven questions in the same time period makes it hard to get any real level of detail. These debates are formatted for platitudes and policies that reduce easily to a 20-second soundbite. Unfortunately, the issues we face are far more complex than that. A debate cannot answer these fundamental questions.
After all of that, who won?
It certainly wasn’t Crowley; she embarrassed herself. And she admitted on CNN that Romney was “right in the main” about his characterization of the Obama administration’s portrayal of the Benghazi attack, despite her attempt to fact check him during the debate.
Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney both accomplished what they wanted, but some of Mr. Obama’s statements may come back to haunt him, particularly on Libya. On the other hand, Mr. Romney failed to make the case effectively that the Obama administration did in fact push the video story as the cause for riots. While Mr. Obama certainly did no worse than achieve a tie in this debate, the stage for the final debate, which covers foreign policy, is set, and because this question was raised, the landscape does not favor Mr. Obama.
I’m giving a slight edge to Mr. Obama on this debate, but he has really hurt himself in preparation for the next debate, which will be Monday.
What do you think? What did you see that I didn’t? Let me know in the comments below!
UPDATE: This post has been substantially revised and updated to include more information, links to sources, and clarification of points made in the original version. I have expanded the discussion of the Benghazi attack to include information about various White house stances on the incident and compared that to information available outside of the White house, and included a brief discussion of Fast and Furious for those who are unfamiliar with this issue.
Previous Debate Posts
Action Speaks Louder: The First Debate
Ryan Vs Biden: DC in a Nutshell
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