I couldn’t bring myself to watch it. I was too nervous for Obama’s sake and too frustrated with the Japanese Tea Ceremony aspect of these things. It all turns on their body language–how strong they appear without crossing the line into truculence. And then there are all those meaningless verbal formulas they have to recite with just the right intonations, about their fealty to Israel; their empathy for “typical” Americans; the role of their faith; their parents’ values; their undying amor patriae. The prospect of a 90-minute discussion of foreign affairs that would say nothing about Europe or Asia or Africa or the Occupation of the West Bank, the deeper tolls of globalism, or for that matter the genuinely global crisis of climate change was pretty depressing too. But I could hear the TV in the other room, and after a while, I began to listen.
I keep reading about how you can’t really tell who won a debate unless you turn off the sound–that’s when Nixon’s shadowy jowls, Gore’s exasperated sighs, or Obama’s downcast grimaces tell the real story. I looked at the TV for a few minutes when Romney was saying how Pakistan’s 100 nukes means we have to be friends with them, even if they hate us (just as the prospect of Iran’s some day having nukes means we can’t talk to them at all), and he looked wide-eyed and not a little desperate, like he was trying to remember to say everything that John Bolton had told him to. His voice was pitched slightly higher than usual and his words were tumbling over each other.
I heard Obama’s “horses and bayonets” and “these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines” from the other room and his voice boomed with confidence, betraying just a hint of contempt for his opponent. I heard him say, “Governor, the people in Detroit don’t forget.”
And then I heard this:
OBAMA: The — look, I think anybody out there can check the record. Governor Romney, you keep on trying to, you know airbrush history here. You were very clear that you would not provide, government assistance to the U.S. auto companies, even if they went through bankruptcy. You said that they could get it in the private marketplace. That wasn’t true. They would have gone through a…
ROMNEY: You’re wrong…
OBAMA: …they would have gone through a…
ROMNEY: …you’re wrong.
OBAMA: No, I am not wrong. I am not wrong.
ROMNEY: People can look it up, you’re right.
OBAMA: People will look it up.
OBAMA: But more importantly it is true that in order for us to be competitive, we’re going to have to make some smart choices right now.
Cutting our education budget, that’s not a smart choice. That will not help us compete with China.
Cutting our investments in research and technology, that’s not a smart choice. That will not help us compete with China.
Bringing down our deficit by adding $7 trillion of tax cuts and military spending that our military is not asking for, before we even get to the debt that we currently have, that is not going to make us more competitive.
Those are the kinds of choices that the American people face right now. Having a tax code that rewards companies that are shipping jobs overseas instead of companies that are investing here in the United States, that will not make us more competitive.
And the one thing that I’m absolutely clear about is that after a decade in which we saw drift, jobs being shipped overseas, nobody championing American workers and American businesses, we’ve now begun to make some real progress. What we can’t do is go back to the same policies that got us into such difficulty in the first place. That’s why we have to move forward and not go back.
Romney responded that he loves teachers, but that Obama ruined the economy–all of our declining income, lost jobs, increased food stamps, and rising debt happened on Obama’s watch and because of his policies. Eight years of Bush, four years of Republican obstructionism had nothing to do with it–and even if they did, only Romney can muster sufficient bipartisan spirit to put us back on track. On the very same track, in fact, that we were on for the eight years prior to the disaster in 2008.
Tea Ceremony or not, Romney’s contempt came through loud and clear. But his contempt wasn’t just for Obama–it was for the American voter. It was for me.