It’s over. Barring some sort of unforeseen political calamity over the next three weeks, Barack Obama has locked up a second term in The White House. Mitt Romney’s spirited comeback attempt over the past 10 days has turned out to be just that: an attempt. In their first debate, the President slipped into his prevent defense and Mitt made him pay for it because inside that saccharine shell of a man is a competent politician. The problem for Mitt is that, even after giving the performance of his life in Denver and seeing a massive surge in voter confidence, he was still behind Obama in electoral college projections and tied with him at best in the popular vote. The man just had too many mountains to climb.
Any football fan is familiar with the situation: Your team is up 10 points with two minutes and change left in the game and the other team just got possession. Slowly, but effectively, the other team moves the ball down the field with short and medium passes as the defense shifts into bend-but-don’t-break mode. The other team keeps matriculating the ball down the field, but they are forced to burn up their timeouts as your defense forces them away from the sideline to keep the clock running. Inevitably, the other team gets in the end zone, but there are only 45 seconds left in the game. They have no choice but to go for an onside kick and pray to whatever god they think is out there that their opponent’s hands team left their stick-um at home. The odds of the kicking team recovering an non-surprise onside kick when trailing in the 4th quarter of a game is about 1 in 5. What we witnessed on Tuesday night was the Romney campaign botching their onside kick. Does that mean that the race is foregone conclusion? Of course not. Nothing is a certainty in sports1 or politics. What I can tell you is that, while the game’s not over, most of the fans in the stadium have started heading for the exits.
Ultimately, the debate and the 2012 presidential race came down to 10 minutes. While Twitter and the 24 hour news media was fixated on Romney’s bizarre “binder full of women” comment and Obama’s snappy pension comebacker, it was Libya that turned the tide in the President’s favor. On paper, Romney should have had Obama dead to rights on Libya. Despite his nauseating and distinctly un-presidential response to the tragedy, Romney had the upper hand on the subject last night, namely because he had nothing to do with it. For Mitt, who has never served in the House or Senate and whose only political experience has been as a state governor, it would have been exceedingly easy to sit on the sidelines and pick apart all of the Obama administration’s missteps concerning the attacks in Libya. The confusion surrounding the embassy attacks in Benghazi has often made the Obama administration seem bumbling and out of their depth in a way that we haven’t seen with regards to the President’s foreign policy decisions since he took office. From day to day and week to week, it was anyone’s guess who would say what regarding the origin and nature of the attacks. One week, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney is telling the American people that the attack was carried out spontaneously by protesters enraged by a cinematic depiction of the Prophet Mohammed as an amoral sex junky and the next, Secretary of State Clinton is telling us that it was a premeditated terrorist attack. It’s been over a month since the death of Ambassador Stevens and 3 other Americans in Libya and we still don’t know exactly what went on.
Romney had all of the room in the world to maneuver before attacking Obama on the issue, but he got impatient. The Republican challenger decided to pounce on semantics rather than substance and it cost him. After Obama’s initial 2 minutes on the subject were up, Romney honed in on his use of the phrase “act of terror” in recounting his words in The White House Rose Garden the day after the attack. From a distance it seems like a solid move. After all, wasn’t the main criticism against Obama that he spent weeks pinning the murders on irate demonstrators and not well-trained terrorists? Well, yes, but that’s not what the President said on the stage in Hempstead, NY or in The Rose Garden. There is a world of difference between an act of terror and an act carried out by terrorists. An act of terror could be anything that is characterized by the use of fear and/or violence towards the end of coercion or intimidation. Anyone can commit an act of terror. When a CIA agent waterboards a detainee in Guantanamo Bay, that constitutes an act of terror despite the fact that the agent is not a terrorist. The Mafia is the undisputed king of acts of terror and no one would consider the Corleone Family to be a terrorist organization. If the President had said that the attacks were carried out by terrorists when he spoke on September 12th, it would mean that a specific terrorist organization had orchestrated and executed the attack. That was not what he said.
Mitt, not being an English major or particularly well-versed in foreign policy matters, didn’t consider the semantic sand trap he had just stepped into and continued his attack. Looking at Obama’s facial expression as he sat back leisurely in his chair, bemusedly watching Romney plod forward with his faulty offensive, you can see the President completely in his element. Many people, myself included, have chided Obama for his excessively cool and detached demeanor. But, while he may have been too laid back in Denver, the President’s calm, collected and analytical mindset served him well last night. Many politicians would have been on Romney before he even had a chance to finish his thought, but Obama let Mitt bury himself. He didn’t correct Mitt Romney or get into an argument with him about it. All he did was tell him to look at the transcript. It was the debating equivalent of taunting an opposing team with a chant of “scoreboard!” Obama knew he was right and, as it turns out, so did moderator Candy Crowley who confirmed the President’s story almost immediately.
This would have been enough to shatter any confidence Mitt had gained up to that point, but Obama wasn’t done yet. For the first time all election, President Obama had a “get off my plane” moment2. For the first time in a long time we saw the President get angry and authoritative, letting Romney know that he will not stand by while he flings offensive accusations at him about the intentions of his staff. Reminding him that he was the one at Andrews Air Force Base greeting the coffins as they returned home, Obama glared at his opponent, saying, “That’s not what we do. That’s not what I do as president, that’s not what I do as Commander in Chief.” It was powerful and it was Barack Obama’s way of putting his challenger in his place. I am the President. I am in charge. Sit your ass down.
And he did.
1Those of you who weren’t alive in 1978 or didn’t grow up addicted to NFL Films VHS tapes have probably never heard of The Miracle at the Meadowlands. Watch this clip and gaze in wonder at the New York Giants’ ability to turn certain victory into improbable defeat in the 1970s:
2In case you somehow never saw the film, Harrison Ford played maybe the most badass of cinematic US President’s in the movie Air Force One. And in that movie, Ford has one of the most iconic tag-lines in the movie history. In the climactic scene of the film, right as he’s about to kill the terrorist Gary Oldman’s evil terrorist ass in the open cargo bay of Air Force One, Harrison Ford looks at him with steely-eyed determination and growls, “get off my plane,” before pulling catapulting him into a deadly freefall.
Categories: US Politics