By Rotimi Fasan
AFTER their first debate that focused on sundry issues, especially the economy, about three weeks ago and the second town hall-style debate that featured undecided voters asking probing questions of them, the third presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney would have been more than a day and a half over by the time you’re reading this. In the first encounter, the Republican candidate was adjudged winner by the American public led by the media.
In that debate in which Romney went on the offensive and Obama was thought tired and listless, the Republican practically took over the debate, ignoring both the moderator, Jim Lehrer, and his opponent in the manner he cut into his opponent’s time and interrupted him.
He was quick, in fact, too quick to dismiss the President’s remarks and his sharp, pointed comments to Obama were in certain places disrespectful. After several gaffes, including his inappropriate criticism of preparations for the recent London Olympics that drew the ire of the British public and a fund-raiser reference to sections of the American public as victims who depended on government- after these series of faux pas, Romney was determined to mend his image in the eyes of Americans, especially the poorer people who saw him, the multi-millionaire CEO, as disconnected from the reality of their existence.
For these reasons it was understandable Romney wanted to make a good impression by attacking Obama’s policies. What I didn’t understand was why the
Americans or the section of it that shapes public opinion didn’t see what game Romney was up to. Romney came into the debate as the underdog and I guess his earnestness during the debate and the articulate, if aggressive, manner he made his point which was a cut different from what the American public was used to influenced the general opinion that he won the debate. I couldn’t see how Obama could have won had he returned fire for Romney’s fire. It would have been odd and very unpresidential.
He was very respectful, apparently in deference to his own office and perhaps to Romney who is 11 years his senior. This made the latter probably too free in using words on him, sometimes virtually calling him a liar.
I expected Obama to take a different approach in the second encounter and was eager to see how the American public would react.
He was adjudged winner here. He was less deferential to Romney and less accommodating of his disregard of time. He interrupted Romney when he thought necessary and called the moderator’s attention to the time when he thought his opponent was going beyond his limit.
The moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley and host of the news channel’s ‘State of the Union’ programme, was quick to halt both candidates when they appeared to exceed their time limit. But Obama was more aggressive and ready to take on Romney- ‘stockfish for stockfish’ as Arthur Nzeribe would say.
Indeed, he had more speaking time than Romney, not so much because he ignored the time which both he and Romney did a couple of times but because Romney’s earlier strategy of asking pointed questions of him and demanding answers from the President, who was reluctant to make Romney turn the debate into an interrogation, reduced the latter’s time.
In one instance Romney wanted to know Obama’s personal tax returns and the Democrat stylishly retorted that he didn’t spend much time checking it as it was far less hefty than Romney’s. He parried such direct/personal attacks on his policies while asking his own equally pointed/personal remarks that Romney also tried to parry.
But neither men could in the same manner parry or ignore questions by the undecided studio audience.
Not from Jeremy Epstein, the college student who wanted to know his future job prospects nor the lady who wanted to know both candidates’ attitude to gun control, a perennially contentious electoral issue in America.
But perhaps one of the most searching questions of this second debate relates to the question asked of Romney by the lady who said although she voted for Obama in the last election she was still undecided because she didn’t think he had done too well in his first term, and knowing it was the Republican administration of the younger George Bush that brought America to where it was, she would like to know what -wait for this!- makes Romney different from, not Obama, but Bush.
This was surely a tough number and I couldn’t see how Romney convinced himself of his own answer to say nothing of his listeners.
Four of this studio audience were invited to Piers Morgan’s show and they were all but convinced that neither Obama nor Romney answered their questions satisfactorily. Asked, however, who they might vote for should the election happen there and then, two of the speakers, including Jeremy, said their ballot would be for Obama.
The other two said they would still be undecided as to who should get their votes. On the balance and in spite of the dead heat, neck and neck dash in the polls, Obama still seems to have the upper hand.
It is customary, some would say, for the challenger to be ahead of an incumbent in an election year given the element of disenchantment with the latter and the tendency to anticipate better prospects under a new administration. Yet this hasn’t been the case with the Romney-Obama race. Projections are that Obama is the more favoured candidate even in the crucial game-changing swing states.
But whoever wins in this election, although I’m for Obama all the way and I believe he would win in spite of the closeness of the race ( the Bush-Gore race that saw Gore winning the so-called popular vote was much closer even leading to a stalemate during which votes had to be counted and recounted in places like Florida- perhaps the first time a candidate would be reluctant to concede defeat in a presidential election)- the important thing is that the American public have had their chance of scrutinizing their leaders, putting them on the spot and making them accountable for their action and inaction.
One can hardly say the same thing for Nigeria where contestants to public offices openly shun debates with the active support of their party and ethnic supporters.
Many times we have seen our leaders walk their way into offices they had been corralled into by persons with agendas that do not include the majority of the electorate.
As always, money is the ultimate decider. Money talks too in America where super pac influence on electoral outcome cannot be discounted. The difference between the American and Nigerian systems is that money is not the be-all and end-all of the former- at least not openly so.