Evasions, interruptions and fact-checking dominate third debate

As everyone was gearing up for the third debate of this election season, and the second between Obama and Romney, the goals were clear. Obama had to come out fighting, defend his record and call out Romney. The governor on the other hand, who saw his poling numbers rise after the first debate, could really use another win to further close the gap between him and the president.

It wasn’t just the president and governor who would have to do better, or live up to the previous debate expectations, but also the moderator. Jim Lehrer has received a lot of criticism of his non-moderating of the first debate, while Martha Raddatz’ performance in the vp-debate received high praise, so it would be interesting to see how CNN’s Candy Crowley would fare, especially given the fact that both campaigns, after the vice-presidential debate, were quick to publicly tell Crowley that her role as moderator consisted only of introducing questions, nothing more.

Any comparison between the debates is difficult because of the fact that this third debate wasn’t a traditional debat, but a town hall meeting were members of the public got to ask questions to the candidates. If you had any hope that questions directed to one of the candidates personally by an audience member would be a recipe for direct answers, you are sorely mistaken.

The first question, coming from a nervous college kid who was wondering if he would be able to get a job after graduating, immediately led to some very vague answers and attack lines. Romney’s argument that he was the best one to fix the economy and help a middle class that had been “crushed” in the past four years was  this: “I know what it takes.” Now, I know economic policy isn’t sexy, nor straightforward, but one might expect some more specifics than a simple, trust me.

Obama immediately responded and talked about all the things he had done and kept referring to the past decade of economic turmoil, thereby laying the blame further back in history so as not to get tainted with it too much himself. All in all, he was much more engaged than during the previous debate.

And then something happened that I hadn’t really expected, especially because of the campaign’s reiteration of what they thought the role of the moderator should be, but Candy Crowley stepped in and asked for answers and specifics dealing with the immediate future, not five, ten years from now. Unfortunately  as was the case in the first debate, the candidates didn’t really listen to the moderator and kept going with their talking points, not just on this questions, but also on the next one, which featured high gas prices.

Both candidates claimed to be willing to invest in clean energy, with each attacking the other for not doing enough on either oil (this was Romney’s attack line), or on green energy (Obama’s argument). It was interesting to see Obama finally countering the Romney argument and calling him out on some half truths. As Romney claimed that less oil was being brought up on federal land because less licences had been issued, Obama set the record straight and clarified that he had put in place a “use it or lose it”-licensing policy whereby companies had to effectively drill for oil when they got a licence and not just have it sitting in their back pocket.

Another interesting point that came up out of this debate was Romney’s promise to make North-America (not just the US) energy independent in five years. I’m no expert, but that strikes me as extremely difficult and near impossible, unless of course he starts drilling everywhere without regard for whatever lies near, above and so forth.

As the debate continued, the moderator kept asking for more specifics and the candidates kept ignoring her and more importantly, kept ignoring the timer. Now, I’m all for a substantive debate, but if you just hash out attack lines for a minute after your timer has reached zero, I sort of get upset. Especially when, as Romney did, you believe it your right to always have the last word and call out the moderator with lines such as “I think I was supposed to have the last answer,” as if she wasn’t doing her job right.

On taxes, finally, we never got an answer from Romney about how we would lower deficit, increase spending and lower taxes, even though the question asked for which specific benefits he would eliminate. I keep finding it strange, and with me, the president, that Romney in these debates keeps reiterating that he will not lower taxes for the top 5%. Of course, as we heard in this debate, he was talking about income tax and most of the top 5% probably get most of their income out of bonuses, investments and dividends, thereby circumventing any income tax. Romney didn’t quite get there but his statements came very close to a “read my lips” moment. The problem of course is that he’s asking people to trust his plans as he is laying them out now, even though he hasn’t got a plan and will work with congress to get into specifics, and the plan he did have several months ago did include tax cuts for the top 5%. Just in case you get confused.

The debate further focused on issues such as inequality on the workplace, drawing the now famous Romney response that as governor he wanted women in his cabinet and the women’s group “brought him binders full of women”. Romney also claimed that he wanted all women to have access to contraceptives and that neither the government, nor the companies should be able to make those decisions. Of course, this comes after two years of campaigning and support of such things as the Blunt amendment.

There were also some difficult moments from Obama as a couple of people indicated that they were upset, disappointed after four years of Obama and were asking why they should vote for him again, or why Romney would be a better choice. Obama did his best to defend his record, while Romney tried to ensure people that he was all for the middle class. Neither of them, in my opinion, really struck gold there.

As the candidates further attacked each other on immigration, the economy and education, there were still some moments that made the debate worth watching. One of those, and one for which Crowley has received some criticism (from Fox), is when the two candidates got into a fight about whether or not Obama had said that the Libya attack was an act of terror. Obama said he did say so the next day, according to Romney it took him 14 days. Crowley interrupted the fight, saying that Obama did say it was an act of terror the day after, bot Romney was right on the underlying point that it took 14 days to dismiss the theory linking the attack to the anti-muslim movie on youtube.

As a mother finally asked Obama why he hadn’t been successful in keeping AK 47’s of the street, the debate focused on gun control. Both Obama and Romney focused not just on the guns in their response, but on the culture of violence as the president named it and stated that more had to be done to fix the problem at its roots. Of course both candidates disagreed as to how, with Romney saying that people should probably get married before they get any children, whereas Obama wanted to work through education and communities and faith groups.

Romney also said he was not in favour of any new laws for gun control. As Obama pressed him on the assault weapons ban, he said he had signed the bill in Massachusetts because there and then, the pro- and anti-gun lobby worked together and there was something for both in the bill. But as president, he would be against an assault weapon ban, period. But in a bi-partisan way, of course.

One last moment I want to share has to do with the final questions. Both candidates were asked what the biggest misconception was about themselves. Of course they didn’t really answer the question but what struck me was that Romney kept saying, throughout the debate, that he came from the private sector and he knows what it takes to create jobs. He didn’t come from the government, but from the private sector. But then he went on and also throughout the debate he kept saying how well things worked in Massachusetts when he was governor there. I do believe this illustrates the most frustrating thing about Romney, he flip flops. He comes from the private sector, not some Washington insider, but he does know what it takes and he has worked very hard as a politician too. Not to mention that he knows what it takes to create jobs, but he really didn’t have anything to do when his company shipped jobs overseas because he wasn’t that involved in the company.

It’s hard to pick a winner in this debate. Frankly, I was more than a little disgusted with the way they kept attacking each other, not answering questions, not even when the moderator pressed for it and the way they kept ignoring everything and everyone just so they could get their attack lines in.

I know for whom I would vote, naturally, but I also know that Hope and Change didn’t really happen (though in the past year, Obama stepped up the change with immigration and DADT) and I can relate to those who are disappointed. But this campaign is more about attacking the other than about anyone’s own record or the truth. And both sides are to blame for that. Of course it isn’t going to stop me from watching, but I do hope that the final debate will be more about substance and the moderator will be able to finally rein in the candidates and get some specific answers.