Mitt Romney is a skilled debater. Despite his reputation for gaffes, he is usually very effective in structured settings. He makes his points, he makes them clearly and he moves on.
That said, the second presidential debate was a disaster for Romney. Here are four moments where he threw away his latest best chance to take the lead in the race for the White House:
WOMEN AREN’T ONLY ONES IN ‘BINDERS’
Romney thought he was touting his commitment to women by bragging that he demanded a “binder full of women” to fill slots in his cabinet as Massachusetts governor. Trouble is, he sounded like the condescending bean-counting CEO that many voters think he really is.
Women know that “binders” are really a shorthand for keeping women in their place. Leaders in business or politics or any other field who actually care about equality don’t have to come up with a dossier to hire women. They just do it. And what happens when you fill enough slots to make the “binder”? You move back to your white male friends for all the rest of the spots — at least that’s what many suspect.
It’s not just women who may recoil at Romney’s “binder.” Black folks, Latinos, gays and other minorities also know first hand what it’s like to get rejected for something because they didn’t have the right connections with the boss. Precious few can say they got anywhere by being in someone’s “binder.”
By the way, it wasn’t so long ago that Jews were in someone’s “binder,” too.
A lot has been made about Romney’s disastrous misstatement about the attack on U.S. diplomats in Benghazi, Libya. It definitely doesn’t get much worse than to get called out by moderator Candy Crowley for flat-out getting your facts wrong.
I am still not sure why Romney and the Republicans think this is a winning issue for them in the first place. Is anyone going to vote against Obama because they aren’t sure he did a good enough job protecting the consulate in Libya? Bringing up this issue just gives the President a chance to say (as he did last night), I’ll bring the terrorists to justice, just like I did with Osama Bin Laden. Who wins that argument?
But even worse than the way Romney messed up the facts was the way he allowed Obama to look authoritative and turn him into a lightweight, without even trying. As Romney kept on talking, he doubled down on an approach that came across as petty and uninformed, especially considering he was talking about our national security.
As Romney dug himself into a deeper and deeper hole, Obama didn’t even have to say much to look cool, calm and in command, just the traits many want in a commander in-chief.
‘Proceed, Governor,’ Obama said dismissively. Translation: ‘Keep digging, Mitt.’
IF LOOKS COULD KILL
A question about immigration was never going to be an easy moment for Romney. He has to walk a tightrope between trying to look like a moderate (“We’re a nation of immigrants”) while pleasing his conservative base by talking up buzz-killing phrases like “self-deportation.”
It made it worse that Lorraine Osorio, the woman asking the question, specifically asked about immigrants who “don’t have a Green Card” but are productive citizens. This is exactly why many Americans disagree with Romney and the GOP. Yes, they are in favor of limiting illegal immigration. But they may have friends or neighbors (or nannies) who are in the U.S. illegally, and wouldn’t want to see them rounded up, or hounded into self-deporting themselves, to use Mitt-speak.
Most questioners try to look respectful and attentive to the candidates, even when they may think the answers miss the point or deliberately ignore their specific question. Osorio made no such effort. At one point, the camera panned out to a wide shot as Romney spoke to her. She glared back at him, legs crossed, clearly not buying a word he said. Millions of immigrants probably gave their TV sets the same look.
Romney got through about 80 minutes of the hour and a half debate without anyone bringing up the devastating secretly recorded video in which he denigrated the ‘47%’ of Americans who he claim pay no federal income tax.
Memo to Mitt: This was a big victory. For the second straight debate, he avoided getting slammed with an issue that sums up many of the reasons that Americans are so suspicious of him.
You could almost hear the screams from Republican strategists when Romney, unprompted, proclaimed in his reply to the final question that he cares “about 100% of the American people.” That gave Obama all the opening he needed to swing back by slamming Romney as someone who doesn’t care about half of the American people, including seniors, veterans, and hard-working single moms.
Would Obama have closed out with his 47% riff anyway? Maybe. But it would have come off much more self-serving and opportunistic if Romney hadn’t hand it to him on a silver platter.
Dave Goldiner is the Forward’s director of digital media. Dave is a veteran journalist who has spent two decades working at newspapers in the United States and Africa. A native New Yorker, Goldiner wrote for the New York Daily News, where he covered some of the biggest stories of our time, including the attacks of September 11, along with thousands of stories of hope and heartbreak. He also studied and worked in Southern Africa and has written for publications in South Africa and Zimbabwe. He holds masters degrees in journalism and public administration from Columbia University. Dave can be reached at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @davegoldiner