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Democracy in action at Obama-Romney town hall

President Obama and Mitt Romney work their inner gladiators in their second debate, going literally and figuratively toe-to-toe.

October 17, 2012|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times
  • President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney arrive on stage for the second presidential debate at Hofstra University, moderated by Candy Crowley of CNN.
President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney… (Getty Images )

Based on Tuesday night's presidential debate at Hofstra University in New York, here is a five-point plan:

-- Moderator Candy Crowley, like Supreme Court justices, should be appointed for life.

-- The town hall format, which allows the candidates to circle each other like prize fighters or come nose-to-nose like bickering spouses, is the best. As the Sundance Kid so famously said, "I'm better when I move."

-- CNN, seriously, lose that undecided voter crawl. It is completely distracting and simply absurd — how much value can there be in the real-time reactions of 35 undecided voters in Ohio? Every time it flatlined, I assumed they were all dead.

-- Putting the questions up on the crawl, however, is brilliant. Not only did it offer a translation for all those lovely New York accents, it served as a constant reminder that no matter what question you ask a presidential candidate, he will not answer it directly. Even if it is a yes or no question.

-- The Declaration of Independence should not serve as wallpaper, even for a presidential debate. There's way too much to read on the screen as it is and it's tough to compete, rhetorically, with Thomas Jefferson.

PHOTOS: The presidential debate

Walking the red carpet never had more social and political significance than it did Tuesday night in Hempstead. Within a space that evoked nothing so much as an arena, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney worked their inner gladiators, going literally and figuratively toe-to-toe as they answered questions from a group of 82 undecided voters from the New York area.

Interrupting each other, correcting each other, at times directly addressing each other with such heat that the audience seemed momentarily forgotten, the two men covered a wide variety of domestic issues and made very clear their different approaches to government.

As with awards shows, televised debates have developed a reputation for redundancy over recent years. But between President Obama's surprising malaise in the first debate, and Vice President Joe Biden's malarkey-eating grin in the second, 2012 has proved something of a renaissance for the form. And Tuesday night fit right in.

Transcript: Read the arguments

Short of a cage match, or a Jack Palance one-armed push-up contest, the candidates could not have pressed harder to make their case to the American people. There were a few moments, especially toward the end when it seemed like someone might get decked, when it certainly rang clearer than many of the photo-op moments of congeniality that these get-togethers typically insist upon.

In the middle of all this inflamed testosterone was the first woman to moderate a presidential debate in two decades, and CNN's chief political correspondent Candy Crowley handled it beautifully. Both Obama and Romney tried to exceed their time limits, engage in cross-talk and argue about whose turn it was, but Crowley was having none of it.

Using both humor and her famously firm tenor, she successfully kept the conversation moving forward, several times asking for a follow-up when the candidates' answers were wildly digressive.

Presidential debate: Times opinionators give this one to Obama

She also spoke up when Romney admonished Obama for taking too long to call the killings in Libya an "act of terror." While the president smiled dangerously and asked Romney to "look at a transcript," Crowley quickly corrected the governor, pointing out that Obama did indeed use the words shortly after the attacks, but also agreeing with his challenger that it took a while for an accurate official response.

The questions too were surprisingly good. A few seemed selected for their slow-pitch possibilities: "How are you different from George W. Bush" (to Romney) and "Why should I vote for you again?" (to Obama).

But most were admirably specific — how would the two men treat illegal immigrants, make the workplace better for women, ensure that college graduates actually find jobs? The most straightforward question — should the Energy Department be able to lower gas prices? — got no answer and led the two men into a ridiculously long "Oh no, you didn't, oh yes, I did" exchange over domestic production of oil and gas.

For the most part though, having real people ask real questions (in the fabulous intonations of the five boroughs) kept the candidates focused, if not specific.

And may I take a moment here to express admiration for the folks in the studio audience, all of whom managed to sit straight up and perfectly still for all 90 minutes and without any visible snacking. Given that no one appeared to be cannoning T-shirts into the crowd before or after the event, surely a certificate of participation is merited. With the presidential seal or something.

Overall, it was a good night for democracy in action. And television.


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