There is nothing unusual about the act of flip flopping in politics. Indeed, many a politician has made a career of it, and it is considered so base an instinct on the campaign trail that it is as second nature as glad-handing, empty promises, soul devoid stump speeches and breathing. Still, divine predestination for waffling aside, since the presidential race was winnowed down to the men we see before us, both campaigns have tended to dig in and fortify the trenches; we are far too close to the finish line for a potentially game breaking reversal of ideology at this point, and both men are far too savvy to risk it. It was with great surprise, then, to see both debaters emerge from a foxhole already a few weeks old and reverse their course in a manner that was immediately apparent and striking: Obama wore a red tie, Mitt Romney blue.
Somewhat recent political connotations aside, blue and red are both considered to be power ties, of sorts, the kind that pop with particular verve when applied to the simple black suits politicians are wont to wear. In these cravats, however, one finds something deeper than men's formal one-oh-one, a subtle hat tip to the wearer's intentions: Romney's blue tie is symbolic of his recent tack towards center, the reemergence of the level headed, evolutionary--or spineless, depending on what circles one runs in--man who, by virtue of ruling with his head instead of his heart, was carrying on a proud tradition of moderate Republicanism in the vein of his father before suffering defeat to John McCain and hitting the 2012 campaign trail with his tongue firmly affixed to the boots of his party's malignant radical elements. Since receiving the nomination, Romney's camp has wisely moved to paint him in a more modest shade of red, gently moving him towards the middle, where he can pick up the independents and moderates he so desperately needs come November; kowtowing won the title in Tampa, but the average American voter is not as conservative as the assassins would have you believe. In his truest form, Mitt is a politician's politician, a man capable or reaching across aisles and using common sense, rather than dogma, to govern. The trick now is to show his true colors without being cannibalized by his base.
Obama's red tie was equivalent to a cobra's hood, and appropriate for the aggressive stance he took in the second debate. Stung by a lackluster performance in Denver and with liberals in histrionics, Obama went on the attack early and often, again moving in on Mitt's lack of details and invoking the ghost of George W., even dipping a toe into personal attacks ("I don't look at my pension plan. It's not as big as your's so it doesn't take as long" drew laughter--an extremely rare commodity in these kind of debates, in which those in attendance are sworn to objective silence--from the audience).
The president's ability to go on the offensive and Romney's chance to hold tough and stand his ground was directly influenced by the structure of the debate, which allowed both candidates the freedom of movement to interact with one another in an extremely visceral way; on numerous occasions the animosity between the two was readily evident, and as much as it was a surely a play to their base it also seemed far too real to be nothing more than political theater. CNN's Candy Crowley--perhaps inspired by the most lackluster performance in the first debate, that of Jim Lehrer--ruled with a golden fist, exercising enough control that one never felt that she was out of her depth and that the people, whom the town hall format was supposed to focus on, were being made a fool of, but soft enough that the debate did not become The Candy Show. It was a difficult line to walk, and Crowley did so admirably. She shut down both candidates, including laying a newspaper across Romney's nose particularly hard, and used the supposed desires of the question askers to steer both men into surrendering to the format. After all, it was not Crowley whom they would be running over if they regarded the rules as gossamer impediments; it was the American people.
What could have been a train wreck for the challenger--Mitt's interpersonal skills are notoriously weak--ended up as something of a wash, perhaps even a loss. He held his own for the most part, but failed to make contact on some extremely important pitches, including a failure to clarify any of the details in his grand vision for America even as a wildly popular Democratic website was taking him to task 24/7 for doing so, and effectively dodging a question comparing himself to Bush, a chance to bury the GOP's skeleton once and for all. On both occasions Obama leapt to the attack, labeling Romney's plan as a "shady deal," and turning the governor's former private sector experience back on him, implying that if an investor came to Mitt with a plan so full of smoke and mirrors as his own he would never back it. (The lack of specifics from Romney or Ryan smacks of pretension and snake oil politics; trust us, we're professionals, and you're too dumb to understand it anyway.) Given an open canvas in regards to how Romney differs from the last Republican president, Obama maneuvered Mitt as right of W on social issues, something which a thousand blue ties could not make palatable to independents and moderates.
Romney pressed on immigration, but perhaps not hard enough. Desperately seeking the hispanic vote, Romney should have attacked the Obama administration's lack of progress with an intensity he has yet to display, taking advantage of a situation that would have allowed him to both use his preferred ineffective-at-the-job framework and appeal to a crucial voting bloc.
The most unbelievable gaffe came when the challenger, given his two minutes, called the president out specifically on the topic of energy, incredibly ceding Obama a free session in which to speak. While this moment did not matter much to the overall debate (basically, both men were right, torturing the statistics until the numbers told them what they wanted) it was a surprising tactical slip from a man who, penchant for slips aside, seemed to for the most part have it together entering the final stretch.
Obama did not solely rely on counterpunches as he did in the first debate, this time acting as the aggressor on his own accord. He reduced Romney's Five Point Plan to a One Point Plan--"Folks at the top play by a different set of rules"--and carried himself aggressively, standing lithe and tall when confronted and looking bemused whenever Romney made a point. He finally played to one of his strengths when he mentioned his remarkable life story, prefacing remarks on inequality for women in the workplace with tales of his single mother and the grandmother who worked her way up from bank teller to management. Romney's response, that his glittering new economy--the one you cannot see--would be so desperate for qualified workers it would have no choice but to hire women came off as callous and cold in comparison, a calculating, reptilian businessman's answer.
A well intentioned question about preventing access to AK-47s and assault rifles caused chests to tighten and blood to run cold, as all knew that breathing the wrong word could raise the National Rifle Association from the grave, Charlton Heston's reanimated corpse clutching an assault rifle in Aurora as a radical group of zealots would be awoken just in time for their unfounded fears to be harvested at the general election. Thankfully, both candidates took a holistic approach to gun violence, emphasizing the educational, economic and societal reforms necessary to change a culture. Romney took the high road and avoided using any sort of gun seizing, second amendment trampling fear mongering when presented with the perfect chance, something one must think he would have jumped at in the Tea Party pandering phase of the race.
The tipping point in what had been a fairly even fight came when the candidates sparred over Benghazi. Obama shouldered the blame for the attacks, absolving Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and promised to hunt down those responsible. Such a threat, which seemed like the six gun shooting ramblings of a dime store cowboy when rendered in the Texas drawl of George Bush, sounded more like a promise from Obama. With a fleet of unfeeling, murderous drone killers at his disposal and a proven willingness to pull the trigger, Obama's statements were as serious--and, one feels, as inevitable--as the grave.
The Romney campaign's attempts to make Benghazi into a bellwether for the collapse of Obama's foreign policy were distasteful when they first appeared and ridiculous when they are used now. Terrorist attacks happen; intelligence fails. An insistence on mentioning the State Department's refusal of increased security will eventually lead to the Republican funding cuts that led to such a denial. Railing about Iran leads one to believe he thinks war is the answer, and if Obama is indeed creating daylight between us and Israel, as the governor insists, then I hope the sun will rise soon. Israel is an important ally to the United States, but is also an unrepentant, petulant one, a big fish in a small pond who thinks it can exercise its will on the nation that gave it teeth.
Attacking Obama on his administration's failure to label Benghazi a terrorist act, Romney continually insisted it took multiple days for the president to call it a premeditated attack, and mentioned that Obama was instead at fund raising events, implying that the president's priorities were out of order. When Obama insisted he told the nation from the Rose Garden the day after the attacks, Romney continued to make his point, finally prompting an exasperated Obama to tell Mitt to "Get the transcripts." Crowley stepped in to tell Romney that Obama did indeed call the Benghazi assault an "act of terror" on September 12, and the challenger was met by startling applause; heading back to his corner looking ashen, half agape smile on his face, the kind of smile that serves as a placeholder on a man whose visage cannot show how he truly feels, he would not return to form for the rest of the night.
Luckily, Romney's collapse came at the end of the debate, allowing him to leave Long Island with an altogether solid performance, considering what a disaster a town hall could have been. Gaping flaws hang in the air that Obama did not take a swing at; he pulled punches on numerous occasions, despite his hawkish approach, and some questionable comments, including Mitt's insistence that government does not create jobs while at the same time touting Reagan's economic recovery--one fueled, in large part, by government hiring-- eagerly await bashing, surely eliciting licked chops in Chicago. An even easier target for those opposed to austerity lies across the Atlantic, as the United Kingdom becomes a head on the pike for Keynesian economists.
As the debate closed and Mitt escaped Hofstra by the skin of his teeth, Obama brushed the blood off of his, and it is doubtful that his thirst has been slaked.