“Some people can never understand that you have to wait, even for the best things, until the right time comes.”
—Franklin Delano Roosevelt
If there was ever any doubt as to the essentially oleaginous nature of the Republican candidate for president, it was dispelled by Mitt Romney at last night’s debate.
Governor Romney’s new-found aggressiveness repeatedly bubbled over into an arrogant peevishness, as when he defended his miasmic budget plans by dismissively snapping at moderator Candy Crowley, “Of course they add up.” He worked the ref belligerently all night, interrupting and speaking over and through the president whenever he wanted to. His disdain for both Ms. Crowley and Mr. Obama seemed to grow exponentially as he went along, tipping him into his biggest mistake of the evening, when he made one wild charge too many in trying to shamelessly exploit the murder of a U.S. ambassador.
Caught in a lie, and a nasty and stupid one at that, he still did not back off, plunging on until he reached lows of demagoguery approached only in this campaign by . . . his running mate, Paul Ryan, in the last debate. Throughout the debate, Mr. Romney lied brazenly, without hesitation or compunction. He lied in big ways and small, lied cleverly and foolishly, lied as if he couldn’t help himself. Debating this man must feel like wrestling with a greased seal.
To recap only the most blatant and risible falsehoods:
Mr. Romney continued the Republican tactic of trying to rewrite the unemployment figures, claiming that the real rate should somehow be 10.7 percent, not 7.8. Citing (yet another) unnamed “study”—“study” now being Republican-speak for “e-mail,” or “tweet,” or “wishful thought”—he claimed that President Obama had increased taxes by $4,000 on each member of the middle class. He claimed that “Obamacare” would add another $2,500 burden on everyone in the middle class. He made the still more ludicrous claim that “the rate of regulations has quadrupled” on business during the Obama administration.
He revived the hoary old Republican accusation that Mr. Obama began his presidency with an “apology tour”—from which, somehow, Republicans can never find an actual apology to quote. He encouraged the runaway conspiracy mongering of his party by trying to gin up not only the murders in Benghazi but also the “Fast and Furious” non-scandal.
He swore yet again that he could still produce a balanced budget even after giving all Americans massive tax cuts and basically doubling military expenditures. He promised to start a currency/trade war with China on his first day in office—about as knowingly false a promise as any American presidential candidate has ever made. And again and again, he claimed credit for every success attained by the commonwealth of Massachusetts, which he led for all of four years . . . despite his avowed intention to dismantle the liberal programs and traditions that have made that state one of the healthiest, richest, best-educated, and most socially stable in the Union.
He even lied about asking for “binders full of women.” They were already there, waiting for him.
At least Mr. Obama decided to engage him this time, seeming as if he had emerged from the bizarre fugue state that seemed to engulf him in the first debate. He confronted Mr. Romney on many of his worst lies, and aggressively defended some of his own policies. He was at his best in flinging Romney’s vapid lies regarding Libya back in his teeth, and sticking up for Secretary Clinton and “my people” at State.
Yet the president still wandered off into weird digressions at times, and spoke in annoyingly halting and uncertain sentences. He gave little or no follow-through at critical times, such as failing to fully explain how Romney’s version of bankruptcy for Detroit would have not only set back the car companies themselves but also shuttered numerous auto-part suppliers throughout the Midwest. For some reason, he could not bring himself to say simply, “I have not raised taxes on any Americans, ever, and have cut them sharply for almost everybody.” He ignored a golden opportunity when Romney gallingly made out that the fledgling hedge fund he started was “a small business.”
He was widely seen as having won the debate, which is nice, but his inarticulateness on key issues remains troubling—whereas Romney relentlessly pounded home his chief talking points, including damning economic figures on the slowness of the recovery. These may yet come to hurt Mr. Obama more than we can tell just yet.
Of course, it did not help that the questions from “average American citizens” provided for this “town hall format” of a debate were, for the most part, depressingly vague, superficial, and self-interested:
How can I get a job when I get out of school? Should the Energy Department keep gas prices down? Will you keep the education tax credit, which is important to me? I’m undecided because I’m disappointed with you, but also the last president. How do you differ from President Bush? Can you tell me why I should be more optimistic about the next four years? What’s the biggest misperception people have about you?
Nowhere was there evidence of any greater comprehension, any wider concern about what’s gone wrong in America over the past few decades. No one questioned why it is that our society is being fundamentally transformed from one that makes things to one that shuffles money around. No one questioned how it is that the disparities of wealth in this country are greater now than they have been at any time in the last ninety years, with all the money being funneled to the top. No one asked how it is that our leaders could be contemplating yet another major war in Asia, the fifth in the last six decades, and this one with even less caution or reason than ever before.
Above all, no one expressed the least apprehension about the changes in the climate that are now becoming readily apparent throughout America. In what was easily the most dispiriting passage of all three debates so far, President Obama and Governor Romney vied to demonstrate which one of them was more committed to increased production of the fossil fuels that are currently choking the life out of the planet.
Romney accused the president of having “not been Mr. Oil, or Mr. Gas, or Mr. Coal”—the equivalent, to anyone who’s been paying attention, of accusing him of not being “Mr. Drought, Mr. Emphysema, Mr. Death.” Barack Obama responded by insisting that his administration was putting more money than ever into the most ridiculous shibboleth of all, “clean coal.”
This is what we’ve come to in twenty-first-century America: a studio and a television audience that sits passively by while both candidates swear their undying fealty to the most lethal fuel source of all time. A mineral that has killed countless millions engaged in its extraction, through cave-ins and black lung, and explosions, and sheer, back-breaking toil. A fuel that even in the best of times blackened our skies and shortened our lives.
But hey, a few, dying coal counties in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and maybe Colorado can still swing either way, so the fate of the world can be ignored for another four years. Never mind that the industry itself is molting jobs left and right, and compensating through the practice of simply slicing off mountain tops and hurling the debris into valleys and streams. Coal must be with us forever, and also oil, and all that natural gas, fracked out from around the shale with chemicals to poison our groundwater in perpetuity.
This is the worst nightmare of our democracy, pursuing a ruinous long-term course in favor of our immediate electoral needs and short-term economic improvement. This is the moment when a leader—a real leader—must be able to point out the peril to his people, and offer a real alternative.
The real tragedy of this election is that this is not something that President Obama can do. (Mr. Romney and his party have grown so impervious to reality that it is no longer possible to expect even self-preservation from them, much less honor.)
Mr. Obama came into office at a time of rare political opportunity, leading a mass movement of devoted followers. He chose to ignore the moment, and defuse the movement, preferring to impose a sort of perestroika on the way we live now, a restructuring of a system that is rotten to the core.
He let that moment, and his following, and his greater dreams, and his congressional majorities all slip away, so that now he really has nothing to say, save for vaguely noble declarations about the need to help the middle class and balance the budget, and small-bore, Clintonian prescriptions for increasing the number of community colleges and cutting Pell grant fees. It’s all perfectly fine, and it’s an infinitely more humane and realistic approach to government than the ridiculous fantasies of his opponent. But it’s not a vision, and it will not suffice.