By FRANK BRUNI
New York Times News Service
So that’s it? The last of the presidential debates? No, no, no. I’m already in mourning, can’t quiet my hankering for more and am not being remotely sarcastic. In a political culture as stage-managed, focus-grouped and airbrushed as ours, these debates gave us rare moments of rawness, not to mention Big Bird.
Monday night’s face-off in Boca Raton was no exception. Any worry that the designated focus on foreign policy would tilt this encounter in a cerebral rather than visceral direction was dispelled almost instantly. Within minutes the candidates were sharply talking over each other, and President Barack Obama, banishing his debacle in Denver once and for all, issued a denunciation of Mitt Romney more sweeping than any from the previous two presidential debates.
Turning toward his opponent, Obama said, “You seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s.”
Romney smiled a thin and brittle smile: “Attacking me is not an agenda.” It was as good an answer as any, but he had an odd color and an odder sheen, that of a man without Dramamine on a rickety boat in threatening seas.
Obama repeatedly reminded television viewers that he alone was familiar with the responsibilities of the commander in chief. He clearly wanted Romney’s experience as a mere governor to sound, in comparison, like a job running a curbside lemonade stand.
And though Romney perspired and occasionally stammered, he wouldn’t surrender. He insisted that al-Qaida wasn’t really “on the run.” He claimed — yet again — that Obama had begun his presidency with “an apology tour,” and faulted him for skipping Israel. It was a barb tailor-made for Florida’s many Jewish voters.
Foreign policy is not at the top of voters’ concerns, so both candidates demonstrated a comic eagerness to build an oratorical bridge from Tripoli to Toledo, Ohio, the debate becoming a contest of how frequently each candidate could beat a path from northern Africa and the Middle East back home.
Thus they sparred over education, food stamps, Obama’s unbalanced budgets, Romney’s unspecific tax plan and even Solyndra. We weren’t in Libya anymore.
In aggregate these presidential debates gave us sublime drama, the first one scrambling the race’s momentum, the second one flavored with enough reciprocal disdain to fill a “Real Housewives” season, and Monday night’s reprising that ill will without quite replicating it. Romney wasn’t as truculent as he’d been, ceding the part of bully to Obama, who gladly took it on, too arrogantly at times.
His mantra of “not true,” “not true” from the prior debate was replaced by “all over the map,” “all over the map,” a dismissal of Romney’s positions as undependable.
These debates did in fact give us truth. I don’t mean that the candidates themselves spoke honestly. Hardly. In fact we should pause for a second to note how sad it is that we’ve come to regard a post-debate fact-check — a report card on who told the most and biggest whoppers — as an inevitable and unremarkable part of the process. In campaigns these days, dishonesty is both an art form and a given.
But the debates revealed each candidate for who he really is: the good, the bad and the binders. Although the two men armed themselves with practiced soliloquies and prefabricated expressions, there was something about the physical proximity of an opponent that scrubbed off even the thickest varnish.
We saw Obama’s aloofness and distaste for the more superficial aspects of politics. But we also saw his resilience.
The debates enabled Romney, at long last, to show Americans his persuasiveness. But he also exhibited his prickliness — “Candy! Candy!” — when he doesn’t get his way.
I not only reveled in these oddities but returned to them, fishing out the transcripts and rereading bits, like Obama’s let’s-measure-our-pensions put-down. On YouTube I revisited the laugh factory that was Joe Biden, who went through all the existing facial expressions for disbelief and derision and then went on to invent another dozen.
In my head I replayed my favorite post-debate analysis: Al Gore’s wondering if the altitude in Denver had incapacitated Obama; one Republican strategist’s description of that Obama performance and Biden’s subsequent mania as a “sleepy cop/crystal-meth cop” routine. The debates were the mothers of some highly inventive wordplay.
They were also a study in moderation, and I’m not referring to Mitt’s. I’m referring to Jim & Martha & Candy & Bob. I’m considering a come-as-your-favorite-moderator Halloween party, and while I thought Bob Schieffer did well Monday night, I’m leaning toward a Candy costume myself, in tribute to her moxie. Debate overlords intended to muffle the moderator’s role in the town-hall format, and asked her to impersonate a potted plant.
So she did: a Venus flytrap. That’s horticulture you can believe in.