Craig Frucht | Road to November
A tale of one city
Published: Tuesday, October 23, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, October 23, 2012 08:10
On a night in which both candidates repeatedly bucked the topic at hand to jam in their own talking points, one topic was notably absent from yesterday’s debate stage: Benghazi.
It’s astonishing that over the course of such a tight race, Mitt Romney has failed so mightily to take President Obama to task for last month’s terrorist attack on the American consulate there.
Where did this dreary saga begin? Immediately after the attacks occurred on Sept. 11, Romney publicly criticized the Obama administration for “apologizing” to the nation’s enemies. Predictably, Romney was denounced for a horrifyingly transparent attempt to politicize an American tragedy abroad, and his election prospects started to look truly dire.
Then Romney pulled off a spectacular comeback in the first debate, helped along by a barely conscious Obama, and had the wind at his back coming into the second debate, his September of Horrors now a distant memory. It was a perfect opportunity to draw blood on a crucial subject in which he’d shot himself in the foot a month earlier.
Instead, he flung himself right into a rhetorical trap. He unwisely tried to criticize Obama for attending a campaign rally the day after the consulate attack, and he ended up the recipient of a memorable dressing−down from his opponent that left Romney looking feeble and callous. Then, clearly off guard, he tried to stammer his way through an off−the−cuff rebuttal — but ended up getting fact−checked by the moderator and returning to his seat in a huff.
Fortunately, perhaps, for Romney, this wasn’t the most talked−about moment after the second debate. But only because it was overshadowed by a bewildering string of comments in which he answered a question about equal pay by boasting that, as governor of Massachusetts, he had once perused “binders full of women.”
It will forever be a mystery what led Romney to utter these words in front of a national audience. Surely they weren’t focus−group tested. Perhaps he believed he could narrow the race’s yawning gender gap by appealing to women’s natural affection for secretarial work. Or else, he was trying to shift the conversation away from the rocky waters of women’s rights to the familiar territory of office supplies.
If nothing else, we learned a valuable public speaking lesson from Romney’s performance: If you ever find yourself talking about binders, folders, desk drawers, attache cases or any other kind of paper storage equipment for longer than ten seconds, you probably aren’t connecting with your audience.
Which brings us to last night: the foreign policy debate, Romney’s best and last chance to score points on an issue on that he presumably could easily portray as an Obama administration security failure. Instead, he spent most of the night agreeing with Obama on everything from his intervention in Libya to his decision to set a timetable to withdraw troops from Afghanistan.
Occasionally, Romney tried to shift the discussion to economic issues, but his attacks never hit home, and repeated the same monologue about unemployment numbers twice, almost verbatim, in the span of 45 minutes. Mostly, however, he demurred to Obama, who drew much harsher distinctions between himself and his opponent.
It was a curious strategy for Romney, who seemed content to fight the debate to a draw. A draw only helps you when you’re ahead, which Romney isn’t. Tight though the race is, Obama still has leads in enough swing states — including almighty Ohio — to most likely pull out a victory.
It was Romney, not Obama, who needed to a win last night, and he didn’t get one. Obama enters the home stretch of the campaign on track for a narrow victory. And they don’t call it the home stretch for nothing.
Craig Frucht is a senior majoring in political science and psychology. He can be reached at Craig.Frucht@tufts.edu