BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — With just six weeks to go before Election Day, all eyes are on the two main players in the nation’s ongoing — and some may say excruciating — presidential drama.
President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney will square off in front of a national television audience on Oct. 3, in the first of three debates between the two. But it seems the voters just can’t wait.
CBS’ “60 Minutes” hosted a proxy debate Sunday night, asking the candidates roughly the same questions in separately taped interviews.
Judging by the results, it could be a bit of a snooze.
This has been a campaign distinguished by a deeply polarized electorate, polls that seesaw regularly between the two candidates, unprecedented amounts of money being poured into the fray, and negative campaign advertising that raises the blood pressure while lowering the overall tone of the debate.
But it seems that by now the candidates have already said everything they have to say. Like the voters, their positions have hardened into easily predictable sound bites that slide off the mind like water off a duck.
Romney: less spending, lower taxes. Obama: forward, not back, on the economy. Romney: Show strength in foreign policy; make sure that nations “understand the rules.” Obama: “clear-eyed, sober assessment” rather than “jumping the gun on another military involvement.”
As veteran interviewers Steve Kroft and Scott Pelley did their best to draw some fire from Obama and Romney, respectively, the nation was left wondering: Is that all there is?
On actual policy, Romney alternated between being overly specific and deliberately vague. He tossed out a lot of figures on taxes and Medicare, but kept to platitudes when it came to his plan for America.
“The president's vision is one of a larger and larger government with trillion dollar deficits that promises everything to everyone,” he said. “His policy for the economy is more stimulus, more government spending… Mine says, ‘Make government smaller. Don't build these massive deficits that pass debt onto our kids… Keep government as a … facilitator of freedom in America. But don't have government take away the rights and the freedoms of the American people.’"
On foreign policy, Romney was scathing in his critique of the president’s performance, without offering any real alternatives. On Afghanistan, he criticized Obama’s announcement of a withdrawal date, but basically agreed with the timeline. On the Middle East, he called for a firmer hand with Egypt and stronger support for Israel. But, with little in the way of a foreign policy record to defend, Romney did not have a lot to say.
Obama was cool and measured, defending his record and explaining the problems. He was not shy about casting blame on his predecessors for the economic mess the country is in, and on his Republican opponents for the stalemate in Washington.
“I think it's important to know where we've been and how far we've traveled,” Obama told Steve Kroft. “We came in, made some tough decisions... the question now for the American people is, "Do we keep moving forward and continue to make progress or do we go backwards to the very policies that got us into this mess in the first place?"
Perhaps the President’s sharpest retort came on foreign policy, where he pretty much told his opponent that he didn’t know what he was talking about.
“Well, let's see what I've done since I came into office. I said I'd end the war in Iraq. I did. I said that we'd go after al Qaeda. They've been decimated... That we'd go after bin Laden. He's gone. So I've executed on my foreign policy. And it's one that the American people largely agree with. So if Governor Romney is suggesting that we should start another war, he should say so.”
There were some moments of unintentional comedy, as when Pelley asked the former governor of Massachusetts what he was going to do to turn his campaign around.
Romney has had a disastrous few weeks, as the backlash from a six-month-old misstep threatens to sink his campaign. In May, Romney told donors at a $50,000-a-plate fundraiser that 47 percent of Americans would never “take responsibility and care for their lives,” expected government handouts, felt like victims, and, most importantly, would never vote for him.
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“My job is not to worry about those people,” he said, thereby all but guaranteeing that “those people” would not worry about him, either.
Everyone from conservative pundits to the outrageously liberal Saturday Night Live jumped on Romney for that one.
“Don’t worry, governor,” said SNL’s Seth Myers in a Weekend Update episode aired this week, “It is looking more and more as if this is not going to be your job.”
Myers also advised the president to just keep silent and ride the wave.
“Why say anything?” said Myers in a segment entitled, “President Obama, What are you doing?” chiding the president for continuing to campaign.
“Your poll numbers are looking great, your opponent is in flames … Don’t make this hard on yourself.”
But Romney insisted that his remarks were taken out of context.
“[My campaign] doesn’t need a turnaround,” he told Pelley. “I’ve got a very effective campaign. It’s doing a very good job.”
This was said in a week when the candidate’s own wife had to take to the campaign trail to tell her husband’s critics to just, well, pipe down.
“Stop it. This is hard,” she told an Iowa radio station. “You want to try it? Get in the ring.”
Romney seemed not to notice the implosion, and confidently predicted victory.
“I’m going to win this thing,” he said.
Right now that seems unlikely. Recent polls show Obama with a substantial lead with critical swing electorates – the handful of battleground states, such as Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio – that will ultimately decide the outcome of the election.
Six weeks is a long time, and anything could still happen to change the balance in this delicate race. The debates could very well shake things up – or else not.
Romney may have said it best:
“[The debates] could decide the election for either one of us,” he told Pelley. “They may not have a lot of fireworks go off, perhaps they don’t change things very much.”
That pretty much covers it. Stay tuned.