By Bob Cesca: For the last two weeks, the Obama campaign and, worse, the entire modern liberal movement were both in danger of coming to an abrupt and jarring end, mainly due to 90 minutes in Denver when superficiality and lies delivered with stunning efficacy rocketed Mitt Romney to within sniffing distance of the White House. Unless the president turned in a killer second debate performance, it's unlikely his odds for a second term could be resuscitated.
Today, Democrats can breathe a much needed sigh of relief. Not only did President Obama significantly redeem himself from his lackluster first debate, but he delivered one of the top two or three finest debate performances I've ever witnessed. That's a big statement, but indeed Barack Obama and Bill Clinton can certainly enjoy the same debate-master company after Tuesday night.
--The political acumen of the president was on full display when he marginalized Romney by positioning him as more extremist than George W. Bush -- while also graciously complimenting some of Bush's more moderate positions. This had a dual impact: 1) it reached out to moderate Republicans who might've supported Bush's positions on immigration, Medicare and so forth, and 2) it made Romney seem out of touch with independents who will determine the outcome of this election.
--When Mitt Romney lost his shpadoinkle and, while defending his shady investments, attempted to shout down the president about the president's pension plan, Obama, without flinching, said, "You know, I -- I don't look at my pension. It's not as big as yours so it doesn't take as long." The audience, which was instructed to remain silent, laughed. That was an unscripted, spontaneous jab by a president who is perpetually underestimated for his wit and sharpness. Furthermore, Romney was referring to the president's mutual funds -- investments that many Americans, middle class or otherwise, own. And somehow we're supposed to believe this is equivalent to Romney's tax shelters and Bain Capital's outsourcing? Hilarious.
--The following points about Planned Parenthood were almost precisely the things liberals and women's groups have been saying since Andrew Breitbart and the Republicans declared war on Planned Parenthood.
"When Governor Romney says that we should eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, there are millions of women all across the country, who rely on Planned Parenthood for, not just contraceptive care, they rely on it for mammograms, for cervical cancer screenings. That's a pocketbook issue for women and families all across the country. And it makes a difference in terms of how well and effectively women are able to work. When we talk about child care, and the credits that we're providing. That makes a difference in whether they can go out there and -- and earn a living for their family. These are not just women's issues. These are family issues. These are economic issues. And one of the things that makes us grow as an economy is when everybody participates and women are getting the same fair deal as men are."
--The president was able to seamlessly transition from these sorts of compassionate remarks to hitting Romney squarely in the gut. After Romney said he'd get tough on China (a move that would potentially tank the American economy, by the way), the president responded, "When he talks about getting tough on China, keep in mind that Governor Romney invested in companies that were pioneers of outsourcing to China, and is currently investing in countries -- in companies that are building surveillance equipment for China to spy on its own folks. That's -- Governor, you're the last person who's going to get tough on China."
--The president also severely undercut Romney's chief "qualification," his record as a businessman, while simultaneously blasting a gaping hole through Romney's chief policy proposal, his tax cut plan. "Now, Governor Romney was a very successful investor. If somebody came to you, Governor, with a plan that said, here, I want to spend $7 or $8 trillion, and then we're going to pay for it, but we can't tell you until maybe after the election how we're going to do it, you wouldn't take such a sketchy deal and neither should you, the American people, because the math doesn't add up." And Romney responded by both lying about the deficit and shoehorning the word "foreign" in there. Get it? Foreign? Southern Strategy wingnuttery.
Speaking of which, what about Romney? In addition to his "foreign" dog-whistle, he also played the "Democrat Party" name-calling game, popular on the far-right, in which the name of the party, the Democratic Party, is deliberately truncated to emphasize the "rat" syllable.
On that note, I personally couldn't imagine saying to any president, regardless of party, "Hold on, you'll get your turn!" Who did Romney, this entitled CEO Thurston Howell III elitist crank, think he was talking to? You don't say to the President of the United States, "Hold on, you'll get your turn," especially when Romney himself repeatedly attempted to shout down Crowley and the president, while rewriting the debate rules.
Romney, in addition to other obvious lies, twice repeated the "Obama doubled the deficit" line, which has been repeatedly debunked everywhere outside of Fox News Channel. Fact: the president cut the deficit by $300 billion with another $200 billion more next year.
Meanwhile, both Crowley and the president pointed out Mitt Romney's reversal of opinion on the assault weapons ban. He used to be in favor of it, but now he's against reinstating it (it was allowed to expire under George W. Bush, and the extended magazine used by Jared Lee Loughner against Gabby Gifford became legal once more -- with tragic consequences). The president actually said, "Governor Romney was for the assault weapons ban before he was against it."
And "binders full of women?" Something tells me this wasn't a line that Romney rehearsed. Classic awkward weirdo Romney. Oh, and it turned out to be untrue.
But easily the biggest and most historic exchange of the night began with what could have been the president's most vulnerable segment. The Libya section.
First, unlike George W. Bush, the president took full blame for any failure to prevent the attack on the consulate in Benghazi. I can't possibly imagine Bush taking the blame for Iraq or 9/11 -- or anything for that matter. "I'm the president and I'm always responsible, and that's why nobody's more interested in finding out exactly what happened than I do," Obama said with conviction, strength and humility.
Next, the president literally shamed Romney's flagrant politicization of the attacks. He turned to Romney, stared him in the eye, pointed direct at the Republican and said, "And the suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the Secretary of State, our U.N. Ambassador, anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we've lost four of our own, governor, is offensive. That's not what we do. That's not what I do as president, that's not what I do as Commander in Chief."
You could almost hear the applause from Obama campaign headquarters all across the nation. It was just one of those moments. An Aaron Sorkin movie moment.
But it only grew from there.
At this point, Romney thought he trapped the president on whether the president regarded Benghazi as a terrorist attack, and so he stepped in for what he thought would be a classic gotcha moment. Romney approached the president and asked for confirmation whether the president called the attacks "acts of terror" during his Rose Garden address the morning after the consulate was hit.
This is when someone on Romney's staff blew it big time and gave him the wrong information. Romney was likely advised that Obama didn't use the phrase "acts of terror" the next morning when, in fact, he had.
ROMNEY: I -- I think interesting the president just said something which -- which is that on the day after the attack he went into the Rose Garden and said that this was an act of terror.
OBAMA: That's what I said.
ROMNEY: You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack, it was an act of terror. It was not a spontaneous demonstration, is that what you're saying?
OBAMA: Please proceed governor.
ROMNEY: I want to make sure we get that for the record because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.
Obama was clearly tracking with this. He knew what was about to happen. He knew Romney was going to lie about what the president said, and so when Obama said, "Please proceed governor," he may as well have said, "Please feel free to embarrass yourself on national television, governor, because I'm going to nail you on this."
And then both Obama and Candy Crowley crushed Romney.
OBAMA: Get the transcript.
CROWLEY: It -- it -- it -- he did in fact, sir. So let me -- let me call it an act of terror...
OBAMA: Can you say that a little louder, Candy?
CROWLEY: He -- he did call it an act of terror.
Boom. The audience once again laughed and applauded. But then, with misplaced audacity and a compulsion for lying that's almost unparalleled in American presidential politics, Romney repeated the lie as if Crowley and the president hadn't just debunked it on television. "It took them a long time to say this was a terrorist act by a terrorist group," he said. Nope. It was the very next day, Mr. Romney.
This was arguably one of those historic debate sequences which I believe will be replayed for many years to come. The challenger, riding a wave of solid polls following a strong first debate, imploded on the national stage. Not only was he scolded by the president for being small and petty, but he was trapped in a lie and wasn't really able to recover.
And finally, Romney made another classic blunder. He clearly forgot that President Obama would get the final word of the night because he set up the president with an enormous opening through which the president could hammer Romney on his infamous "47 percent" video. In his closing remarks, Romney said, "I care about 100 percent of the American people."
Knowing that Romney wouldn't have an opportunity to respond, the president hit Romney with the one major cudgel he'd failed to mention in the first debate. The president said:
"I believe Governor Romney is a good man. Loves his family, cares about his faith. But I also believe that when he said behind closed doors that 47 percent of the country considered themselves victims who refuse personal responsibility, think about who he was talking about. Folks on Social Security who've worked all their lives. Veterans who've sacrificed for this country. Students who are out there trying to hopefully advance their own dreams, but also this country's dreams. Soldiers who are overseas fighting for us right now. People who are working hard every day, paying payroll tax, gas taxes, but don't make enough income. And I want to fight for them. That's what I've been doing for the last four years. Because if they succeed, I believe the country succeeds. When my grandfather fought in World War II and he came back and he got a G.I. Bill and that allowed him to go to college, that wasn't a handout. That was something that advanced the entire country. And I want to make sure that the next generation has those same opportunities. That's why I'm asking for your vote and that's why I'm asking for another four years."
He could've just noted the phrase "47 percent" in passing with a zinger about Romney being out of touch, but he went on to name some of the major groups that compose the 47 percent, then effortlessly dovetailed it with his goals for the next four years.
This is a whole new election now. I can't imagine the polls not moving back in the president's favor over the next five days, and we'll be watching them very closely. The final debate on Monday is all about foreign policy. I presume the president will bring it once again. After all, this is Romney's weakest area, and so this election could be sufficiently wrapped up with another performance like last night's.
Oh, and remember when I wrote that it's unrealistic to expect that Obama will deliver a Sorkin-style debate performance? Never mind.