(Page 2 of 2)
It was left to Obama, of all people, to sound like a comparative adult on the question: "Candy, there are some jobs that are not going to come back. Because they are low wage, low skill jobs. I want high wage, high skill jobs."
Romney was no better on the (very few) good questions last night, such as from a woman who wanted to know how his policies would be specifically different from those of George W. Bush. Instead of taking the opportunity to criticize the big-government spending spree during the Republican-dominated era of 2001-2008—which John McCain had no trouble critiquing in real time four years ago—Romney...regurgitated his five-point economic plan. This audio-animatronic response was all the more odd considering that each one of the five points (energy independence, balanced budgets, increased free trade, etc.) was something that George W. Bush actively campaigned on.
These debate hiccups were not just missed rhetorical opportunities. They were the logical progression of a candidate who has made a specialty out of vagueness, who—like many talented business consultants—tailors his message to flatter his audience without scaring them too much about uncertainties ahead.
When you steer clear of off-putting ideology and run screaming from even mildly painful specifics, what do you have left? Bland, tautological advertisements for competence.
"I know what it takes to get this economy going," Romney answered to the first questioner, a college student named Jeremy, who the GOP candidate would eventually (and shamelessly) promise to get a job. "I’m going to change that. I know what it takes to create good jobs again. I know what it takes to make sure that you have the kind of opportunity you deserve. It's not going to be like the last four years. The middle-class has been crushed over the last four years, and jobs have been too scarce. I know what it takes to bring them back." Every time Romney brings up the Olympics, or waxes poetic about small businesses, the message is the same: I am managerial, I am competent, I am from the world that understands economic principles so well that you really don't need me to spell them out.
This approach may be maddening to those of us who take seriously the project of limiting the size and scope of government, but fairness compels an observation: It may well work. After all, Romney used this strategy to survive the minefields of the GOP nominating process, and get himself to a statistical tie three weeks before election day.
But the absence of a coherent alternative philosophy contributed to Romney's lowest point last night: His utter failure to make Obama squirm over the administration's constantly conflicting explanations of the botch-job in Benghazi. Instead of hammering at the substance of poor security planning, poorer public relations, and a foreign policy that blunders from intervention to intervention, Romney foundered on the style issue of Obama holding fundraisers the day after the attacks. "I think these [...] actions taken by a president and a leader have symbolic significance and perhaps even material significance," he said, getting the priorities backward. Then Romney changed the subject to the president's insufficient friendship with Israel, his insufficient hawkishness on Iran, and his alleged "apology tour" of the Middle East.
On Benghazi as well as the economy, President Obama's record is its own anti-Obama attack ad. An opponent confident in his own ideology would have put the incumbent away long ago, unless the degradation of American politics is such that a candidate like that wouldn't have even come this far.