Call it the revenge of the unmanageable.
Not that they didn’t try. In a “memorandum of understanding” dictating the terms of the 2nd presidential debate, the Obama and Romney campaigns did everything but put a wind-up key on the back of debate moderator Candy Crowley. “The moderator will not rephrase the question or open a new topic,” they agreed, “ . . . not ask follow-up questions or comment on either the questions asked by the audience or the answers of the candidates . . . or otherwise intervene in the debate except to acknowledge the questioners from the audience or enforce the time limits.”
Everyone signed off on the deal – except Crowley. She gave her response Tuesday night: When pigs fly!
A Political Cage Match
Tuesday’s showdown between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney was the kind of debate that should have been conducted as a cage match. Crowley wasn’t the only unmanageable force on stage. Both candidates routinely invaded each other’s space (against rules they stay in defined areas), talked beyond their allotted time limits, and, when it served their purpose, got up in each other’s face.
The consensus among pundits will be that both “scored points” and “did what they had to do.” And President Obama will be declared a winner, if only because he wasn’t the same loser that showed up for their first encounter. But that is neither here nor there since they will meet again only six days from now in a third and final debate that will supersede all that went before.
What will be remembered from this one are not the encounters between Romney and Obama –– although there were a few memorable ones –– but Romney’s attempt to push around Crowley for a little extra strategic advantage, and her determination to push back.
In a race where the bulk of the remaining undecided voters are believed to be white, suburban women, going after the woman moderator probably wasn’t the most astute political decision. But losing to her on the biggest call of the night was the kind of gaffe that might, indeed, cost Romney the election.
Ok, Ok, Enough All Ready
Romney’s and Obama’s belligerence was evident from the get-go. It manifested itself in any number of “That’s not true” – “No, that’s not true” exchanges that Crowley, for the most part, let play out. When it was time to move on to the next question, she moved on. But Romney wasn’t always ready to move with her. The first time it happened, he tried to invoke debate rules.
Feeling the sting of an Obama claim that Romney’s opposition to wind energy subsidies would jeopardize over 75,000 jobs in the critical swing states of Iowa and Colorado, he asked for more time.
“He (Obama) actually got the first question. So I get the last question — last answer,” Romney whined. Crowley wasn’t buying it.
“It doesn’t quite work like that,” she corrected him. “But I’m going to give you a chance here. I promise you, I’m going to.”
Undetered, Romney gave his rebuttal anyway.
“Candy, I don’t have a policy of stopping wind jobs in Iowa and that —they’re not phantom jobs. They’re real jobs,” he said.
“OK,” she said.
“I appreciate wind jobs in Iowa and across our country. I appreciate the jobs in coal and oil and gas. I’m going to make sure –
“OK.” She said again.
“ — we’re taking advantage of our energy resources. We’ll bring back manufacturing to America. We’re going to get through a very aggressive energy policy three and a half million more jobs in this country. It’s critical to our future.”
“Candy, it’s not going to –,” Obama tried to interject.
“Ok, we’re going to move you both along to taxes over here and all these folks that have been waiting,” she said, shutting the door on further discussion.
The Last Word on Contraception
The same dynamic played out again when the conversation turned to providing contraceptive coverage under health insurance. When the allotted time for the question ran out, Romney again claimed he didn’t get a fair chance to respond.
“ I think I was supposed to get that last answer, but I want to point out that I don’t believe–” Romney began.
“ I don’t think so, Candy,” Obama chimed in.
“I don’t believe––” Romney continued.
“I want to make sure our timekeepers are working here,” Obama said (apropos of nothing).
“The time — the time,” Romney started to reply.
“OK. The timekeepers are all working,” Crowley said finally. “And let me tell you that the last part, it’s for the two of you to talk to one another, and it isn’t quite as (inaudible) as you think. But go ahead and use this two minutes any way you’d like to. The question is on the floor.”
At which point, Romney reasserted his belief that anyone should be free to use contraceptives, but employers should not be forced to provide contraceptive coverage in their health insurance.
A Developing Pattern
It went like this through much of the night. Crowley teed an audience member to ask a question. Obama or Romney responded. Then rebuttal time opened the door for each to slip off into whatever talking point they felt they had missed. When the subject turned to immigration, for instance, Romney decided it was time to correct the record on his Chinese investments. The transcript reads as follows:
ROMNEY: Let me mention something else the president said. It was a moment ago and I didn’t get a chance to, when he was describing Chinese investments and so forth.
OBAMA: Candy? Hold on a second. The…
ROMNEY: Mr. President, I’m still speaking.
ROMNEY: Mr. President, let me finish.
ROMNEY: I’ve gotta continue.
CROWLEY: Governor Romney, you can make it short. See all these people? They’ve been waiting for you. (inaudible) make it short (inaudible).
ROMNEY: Just going to make a point. Any investments I have over the last eight years have been managed by a blind trust. And I understand they do include investments outside the United States, including in — in Chinese companies. Mr. President, have you looked at your pension? Have you looked at your pension?
OBAMA: I’ve got to say…
ROMNEY: Mr. President, have you looked at your pension?
OBAMA: You know, I — I don’t look at my pension. It’s not as big as yours so it doesn’t take as long. (laughter)
OBAMA: I don’t check it that often.
ROMNEY: Let me give you some advice. Look at your pension. You also have investments in Chinese companies. You also have investments outside the United States. You also have investments through a Cayman’s trust.
CROWLEY: We’re way off topic here, Governor Romney.
OBAMA: I thought we were talking about immigration.
OBAMA: I do want to make sure that…
CROWLEY: If I could have you sit down, Governor Romney. Thank you.
An Act of Terror – And Stupidity
Romney’s frustration with Obama was palpable by the time an audience member asked the first question on foreign policy: who was it that refused added security for our consulate in Benghazi – and why?
If Obama had prepared for any question, it was this one. I watched this portion of the debate on CNN where the real time Enthusiasm Meter at the bottom of the screen showed men elated by his defiant vow to catch the perpetrators. When Obama absolved Secretary of State Clinton for the security decisions –– “I am ultimately responsible for what took place there because these are my folks, and I’m the one who has to greet those coffins when they come home” –– his rating among women went through the roof.
When Romney got his shot at the question, he swung and missed. The Enthusiasm Meter on CNN flat-lined at zero as Romney turned the Libyan attack into a broad condemnation of a Middle East policy “that began with an apology tour and . . . is unraveling before our eyes.”
He got a blip of approval when he charged that President Obama wasn’t so saddened by the attack he didn’t attend a campaign fundraiser the next day in Nevada. But that only brought on this (well-rehearsed?) response from the President:
“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.”
Walking Into The Trap
Romney jumped up off his stool.
“Governor, if you want to––“ Crowley began. She didn’t have to say more. Want to respond? Romney was dying to respond.
“I think it’s 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,” Romney began.
“That’s what I said,” Obama said quietly, not bothering to rise from his seat. Romney turned on him like a Cobra coiled for the strike.
“ 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?” he asked.
“Please proceed, governor,” Obama demurred.
“I want to make sure we get that for the record,” Romney said, incredulity dripping from both sides of his mouth, “because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.”
“Get the transcript,” the President said. He looked at Crowley for confirmation.
And that’s when Crowley lowered the boom. “He did in fact, sir,” she said. “So let me –– let me call it an act of terrorism.”
Obama smiled. “Can you say that a little louder, Candy?”
“He did call it an act of terror,” she repeated. “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 right about that.”
Romney’s ah-ha moment suddenly turned into oh-oh. He’d forgotten the first rule of debating, NBC political director Chuck Todd wrote later: never ask a question you don’t know the answer to.
In 90 minutes of debate, there were moments that bolstered the hopes of both sides – and will no doubt be sliced and diced into late breaking political commercials. But if one moment endures in presidential debate history, it will be this one: the debate where Candy Crowley stepped in to fact check Mitt Romney on live TV.
“Mitt thought he had Obama cornered,” Howard Fineman, the Newsweek/Daily Beast columnist tweeted shortly afterwards. “The close-up on TV showed Mitt with fire in his eyes. Then Candy to the rescue. Very dramatic.”
“Brutal,” wrote Taegan Goddard of Political Wire:
“This demonstrates the value of an active moderator,” added Politico’s Roger Simon.
Republicans were quick to try to mitigate the damage on Twitter and in the spin room after the debate. Ed Gillespie, the former Republican party chairman who is controlling Romney’s campaign, wasn’t alone in suggesting Crowley had tilted the playing field. Nicole Wallace, the former Sarah Palin advisor now on board as an ABC commentator, put the case succinctly: Obama got more airtime than Romney, the audience in the room was stacked against Romney, “and Candy played a more activist role than anyone expected,” she said.
In a post-debate appearance on CNN, Soledad O’Brien asked Crowley about the moment. “Well, I knew that the President has said act of terror, because this has kind of come up before, and also I heard him that day,” she said. “And what Mitt Romney was going for, and I think where he tripped himself up was that he picked that one wrong fact . . . and the President kept looking at me going, you know, and I thought, well, I did know then, I said, you know, he did call it an act of terror. That’s what caused the applause.”
“And then I said, but you are correct that they didn’t know for a couple of weeks that it wasn’t related to the tape and there was no riot outside the consulate,” Crowley added. But by the time she said it, it was cold comfort for a man she’d just left dead in his tracks.
If there is a last word to be had on the Crowley-Romney imbroglio, I’d give it to ABC commentator Matthew Dowd, who said, “When you start attacking the ref, that means you left a lot of plays on the playing field.”