It has been over a week- a week!- since I last used my favorite word, "ironic."
It has been long enough, and so it was ironic that both Mitt Romney's most effective statement and biggest unforced error came in response to the worst question at Tuesday night's clash in Hempstead, NY.
We shouldn't have been surprised. Closing statements, a waste of valuable time, have become almost mandatory. There were two-minute closing statements in this year's first presidential debate, hosted by Jim Lehrer, and a closing statement in the vice-presidential debate.
Last night, there was no closing statement- technically. There was, in fact, a call by Candy Crowley for closing statements, though not acknowledged as such by the moderator. Crowley chose the questions- and order of the questions- from among those submitted by allegedly undecided voters. And the last one was nearly predictable. "What do you believe," a guy named Barry Green asked, "is the biggest misperception "that the American people have about you as a man and a candidate? Using specific examples, can you take this opportunity to debunk that misperception and set us straight?"
When a politician hears a vague question about feelings or what people think of him or her, it looks like a big, fat fastball over the heart of the plate. And when the questioner asks to be "set straight," that fastball is coming over at about 80-85 miles per hour. (Sports analogies are so tedious, aren't they?) It is a request for a closing statement by any other name.
In part, Romney didn't disappoint, claiming, in the manner of a closing argument to a campaign
I understand that I can get this country on track again. We don’t have to settle for what we’re going through. We don’t have to settle for gasoline at four bucks. We don’t have to settle for unemployment at a chronically high level. We don’t have to settle for 47 million people on food stamps. We don’t have to settle for 50 percent of kids coming out of college not able to get work. We don’t have to settle for 23 million people struggling to find a good job.
Sure, a President has virtually no effect on the price of gasoline in the short-term (which was the issue in play here); unemployment is coming down and is .4% higher than when incumbent President Ronald Reagan ran on the highly successful "Morning in America" theme; food stamp rolls are very high because of the economic slump Barack Obama inherited and liberalization of eligibility rules enacted under President Bush; and Romney wants to raise the eligibility age for both Medicare and Social Security, which would deter elderly people from retiring, hence foreclosing those positions from young people looking for a job.
Still, those comments from the challenger would have been effective- had they not been overshadowed, justifiably, by a comment Romney made earlier in the same response: "I care about 100 percent of the American people. I want 100 percent of the American people to have a bright and prosperous future. "
Uh, no. No, he doesn't. Mitt Romney does not care about 100 percent of the American people, nor does he particularly want 100 percent of the American people to have a bright and prosperous future. He hardly is rooting for individuals "who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it." He believes "they will vote for the president no matter what" and that he will "never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
Let's go over it: in the formulation of the ex-governor, 47% of Americans are crybabies, leach off the (federal income tax) taxpayers, and will vote for his opponent, anyway. But he cares about them and wants them "to have a bright and prosperous future."
Resisting the temptation explicitly to accuse his opponent of "chutzpah," Barack Obama nevertheless pounced, asserting, in part
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.
By bringing up "100%," Romney obviously laid the predicate for Obama's remark. The President ought to spend the remaining three weeks of the campaign reminding voters that his opponent dismisses both soldiers and the elderly, and is targeting the latter with his plans for Medicare and Social Security (not primarily individuals already elderly, but it is a status almost all of us aspire to). In his response to an audience member who wanted him to "debunk" a "misperception" and "set us straight," Romney could have helped Obama more only if he had quipped "Barry, I didn't realize you needed to be set straight."