The spontaneity-smothering memorandum of agreement negotiated by the two campaigns and the Commission on Presidential Debates, the scientific selection of the undecided voters chosen to ask the questions, the to-the-second timing, and the carefully crafted debate rules helped make sure there was very little unexpected at Tuesday night's second event at Hofstra University.
One comment that felt unscripted came when Gov. Mitt Romney asked President Barack Obama whether he had looked at his pension lately. “It’s not as big as yours,” Obama said. Despite the strict rules about audience reaction, that drew a lot of laughs.
Another comment that seemed to come out of nowhere arose during Romney’s response to a question thrown to Obama that seemed like a batting practice fastball: What about fairness for women in the workplace? Obama was able to answer that the first act he signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, and that, when Romney’s staff was asked about Romney’s position on it, they answered that they’d have to "get back" to the questioner on it.
In response, Romney harkened back to his time as Massachusetts governor, when a group of job applicants turned out to be all men. Romney asked why they couldn’t get more women applying, and his answer included the quirky phrase “binders full of women,” which quickly started reverberating around the blogosphere.
It wasn’t clear whether the candidates expected the how-are-you-different-from-George-Bush question addressed to Romney. But, not surprisingly, Romney drew distinctions between himself and the president that Republicans prefer to keep in the attic for now. Then Obama, who ran against Bush as well as John McCain in 2008, was happy to point out other ways in which Bush was different from Romney: Bush didn’t want to make Medicare into a voucher program, for example, or defund Planned Parenthood, and George Bush favored comprehensive immigration reform.
Once again, there was a vast proliferation of conflicting numbers and assertions. This time, the contest seemed far more even, the president far more combative, quick and engaged. But whether voters can get convincing truth from two minutes at a time still remains questionable.
One thing different about this debate for me was the setting.
Watching a debate from afar on television does not convey what the amazing security cordon around the site does: the immense power of the office that these two men are seeking. The Secret Service screening, the heavy equipment blocking the roads between the media parking lot and the filing center, parting like the Red Sea as the shuttle bus rolled through, it all served to remind me vividly of the scope of this office and what we expect of the person who holds it.
Yet, for all the security that surrounds them, the two men vying to take the prescribed oath of office in January have shown themselves painfully human in the course of this campaign. Romney’s signature bad day was the disclosure of his "47 percent" comment at a fund-raiser. Obama’s was his mysteriously abysmal performance in the first debate. All the security and hubbub surrounding them made me wonder what kind of people can perform under that kind of stress.
In his welcoming comments before the debate, Hofstra president Stuart Rabinowitz recalled wishing at the 2008 debate that Hofstra would snare the 2012 debate too. He got his wish, and he repeated that wish for the 2016 debate cycle. This debate, like the last one, was an outstanding opportunity for Hofstra students to witness history: an incumbent president coming back from the political dead.