8:45 p.m. EDT: Welcome to our live fact-check of the Second Presidential Debate. I will be fact-checking, in real time, the statements of both candidates and the moderator, as well as--when necessary--the members of the audience who will be posing questions. I will also provide analysis throughout the course of the evening.
9:06 p.m. EDT: Romney answers first--responding to a question about how to create more jobs for students graduating from college. He also discusses student debt and mentions the scholarship program he started as governor of Massachusetts to provide assistance to the top 25% high school students in the state. Romney discussed that program at the Republican National Convention, but we haven't heard much about it since.
Obama, in response, attacks Romney for suggesting the auto industry should be allowed to go bankrupt. He refers to changes in the tax code--by which he means that he wants to end the supposed tax credit for shipping jobs overseas (which is meant to compensate for double taxation, something Obama never explains). It's a promise he made in 2008 as well. He also talks about taxing the wealthy more to invest in American infrastructure. These are talking points that are familiar from the campaign trail--four years ago and today.
9:10 p.m. EDT: Romney responds to Obama's charge of bankruptcy by pointing out that Obama did, in fact, take the auto companies bankrupt. Obama then responds, falsely, that Romney intended to take the companies into bankruptcy in order to shut them down and destroy one million jobs. It is a blatant lie. Here is what Romney actually said: "Detroit needs a turnaround, not a check....In a managed bankruptcy, the federal government would propel newly competitive and viable automakers, rather than seal their fate with a bailout check." He argued for restructuring the auto industry without bailouts to make it more competitive and without burdening the taxpayer unnecessarily. Obama's lie seems to have been made up on the spot.
9:15 p.m. EDT: In the course of an exchange about gas prices, Romney checks Obama's claim that natural gas production has increased on his watch, pointing out that it has increased on private lands, but has lately decreased on federal lands. He adds that the federal government has been an obstacle to fossil fuel development, singling out North Dakota and the Keystone XL pipeline. Obama responds: "Very little of what Governor Romney says is true." He claims that the administration has opened up federal lands--which is the opposite of what the Obama administration has just done in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
9:20 p.m. EDT: Obama hits Romney with a harsh but factual point--that, as governor of Massachusetts, Romney had opposed a coal plant and described it as dangerous. Romney doesn't bother with that--he goes straight for Obama's promise to increase production over the next four years by pointing out that he has not been a friend of production in the past four years. He argues Obama has cut permits in half--which Obama rejects. In a tense exchange, Romney challenges Obama to say how much he has cut permits. Obama never gives a figure, but talks about how some permits were not being used--a very partial and misleading answer.
9:22 p.m. EDT: Obama mocks Romney's criticism of his green energy policies by calling green jobs real jobs, accusing Romney of opposing wind power. Not a great argument on the day one of his stimulus-funded green energy projects, A 123, declared bankruptcy.
9:25 p.m. EDT: A bit of analysis. This is an alpha-male contest. Both candidates are clashing over answers with which they disagree; both are interrupting; both are working the moderator. It's great viewing for those of us who like an energetic debate. I'm not sure it's impressing voters who complain that politicians spend too much time arguing and not enough time working together. Obama "started it," for what that's worth, but the first candidate to talk about reaching across the aisle--and to mean it--will probably win some approval.
9:27 p.m. EDT: A question from the audience asks Romney specifically about his tax plan and about the deductions that he would end. A fair question of Romney--but not fair in the context of a debate with Obama. Questions should apply equally to both candidates. We know that moderator Candy Crowley has selected all of the questions, so this reflects poorly on her, and would seem to confirm conservative worries about her bias.
9:30 p.m. EDT: Obama attacks Romney's record on taxes, harshly, and cites Romney's statements in his recent 60 Minutes interview, claiming that Romney said it was "fair" that he pays a lower tax rate than many other Americans (though Obama does not explain why, of course). Obama's claim is misleading--what Romney referred to as "fair" was the principle of taxing capital gains at a lower rate than income. Obama's own tax proposals reflect the same principle. So this is a false attack, using a false quote to create a false premise.
9:35 p.m. EDT: Obama bundles a whole series of attacks together into a claim that Romney wants to spend more and tax less without explaining the details of his program--and without making wealthy people like himself pay their fair share. (He even works in a reference to Big Bird!) Crowley, for what I believe is the second time in the debate, refuses to allow Romney to address or rebut anything that Obama says--she merely asks a follow-up question. Romney is too polite--and, under the circumstances, too smart--to protest. But it is clear that Crowley is playing down to the stereotype of the liberal moderator as a co-combatant for Obama.
9:37 p.m. EDT: Another selected liberal question--this time, about inequality in the workplace. Allegedly, the audience member says, women earn 72 cents for every dollar that men earn in the workplace. While that might be true for Obama's White House, where men earn far more than women, it is a false picture of the workplace as a whole. In fact, in some sectors women earn more than men. But that's not the point--the point is to set up Obama to talk about the Lily Ledbetter act--falsely described by Democrats as "equal pay for equal work," but in fact an extension of the existing statute of limitations on discrimination lawsuits to lengths that discourage new hiring. The entire frame of the question--inequality--is also made to order for Obama's line.
9:43 p.m. EDT: Obama attacks Romney for saying that employers should be allowed to decide whether their insurance should cover contraception. He also goes after Romney's position that Planned Parenthood should not receive federal funding. This is playing into social issues and "women's issues"--but not necessarily in a way that helps Obama. Romney could respond--but is not allowed to do so. Because, once again, Crowley moves the discussion along. This is absurd. It's not a town hall meeting--it's a kangaroo court.
9:45 p.m. EDT: Another anti-Romney question. Posed only to Romney: what differentiates you from George W. Bush? How about we ask Obama what differentiates him from Jimmy Carter? Or, you know, Hugo Chavez?
9:48 p.m. EDT: Another analytical point. As tough as it is for Romney to face a) questions screened to target him and b) attacks from his opponent to which he is not allowed to respond, he is doing well to return over and over again to the theme of jobs and how he would create them. Obama, with the benefit of a friendly audience and a moderator playing for the same side, has nothing to offer other than attacks. His voice is more high-pitched than usual--this is not "no-drama Obama"--and he is sacrificing gravitas for point-scrabbling.
9:51 p.m. EDT: Wow, a question specific to Obama. But not a cheap shot, like the past few questions to Romney--rather, a setup to allow Obama to talk specifically about promises he's kept and his plans for the future. Crowley has disgraced herself. She has turned what should have been a debate into a trial by fire for Romney. That's a sign of how far he's come--but the opposite of what the debate process is supposed to be.
9:56 p.m. EDT: Romney responds to Obama by talking about all of the promises he failed to keep, and how "we can't afford another four years" like Obama's four. The strength of his answer is, once again, his emphasis on jobs. And he finds time, at the end, to talk about an alternative that would work better--the Reagan path. "The president has tried, but his policies haven't worked." (I would have liked to hear Romney give a summary of his own policies.) Obama walks toward the front, as if to rebut Romney. The constant walking back and forth is what I dislike most about town hall debates--it's strange and awkwardly confrontational.
10:00 p.m. EDT: Another question aimed at Romney, this time on immigration. Romney handles it well, talking about his own beliefs and policies and challenging Obama's record. Prediction: Obama will attack Romney for shifting on some facet or another of his own immigration policy.
10:02 p.m. EDT: In Obama's rebuttal on immigration, Obama claims he has done everything he can to reform immigration--which is untrue, as was pointed out by Romney and in Obama's interview with Univision last month. Obama promised to pass legislation, but did not bother--even when Democrats controlled Congress. Obama says that "we are a nation of laws"--but his own policies violate the rule of law by going around Congress and abusing prosecutorial discretion to defer the deportation of certain illegal immigrants. As predicted, Obama attacks Romney by alleging that he once held different positions--namely, pointing out that Romney said he would veto the Dream Act. But nothing in Romney's answer is inconsistent with opposition to the Dream Act. It's a straw-man argument. This time, Romney refuses to answer Crowley's follow-up before he has corrected Obama's attack and challenged Obama with the fact that he failed to propose legislation.
10:07 p.m. EDT: Romney closes his point on immigration by attempting to respond to an earlier criticism made by Obama that accused Romney of investing overseas. He points out--as Obama grins sheepishly--that Obama's own pension is invested overseas. Obama's response is merely that Romney's pension is bigger--as if that settles thing. Crowley intervenes to cut Romney off, coming to Obama's aid as she has several times.
10:09 p.m. EDT: "Who was it that denied increased security, and why?" A question directed specifically at Obama--and this time (for once)--it's a real one, and goes to the heart of the Libya scandal. Obama dodges by talking about his initial reaction to the embassy attacks, and contrasts his response with Romney's response, which was to criticize the Obama administration's apology for an anti-Islam video that was a mere red herring. (Romney's criticism was aimed at the response to the attack on the U.S. embassy in Cairo, not the response to the fatal attack on the consulate in Benghazi.) Of course, Obama does not bother to answer the question.
10:12 p.m. EDT: Romney responds by pointing to Obama's own actions the day after the embassy attacks--specifically, continuing to appear at fundraisers and campaign events. He broadens the critique to Obama's "whole policy in the Middle East." This is a straightforward attack we have heard before, right down to the accusation that Obama went on an "apology tour" of the region. In deference to liberal critics, it is worth noting that the term "apology" is a metaphor and Obama did not actually apologize during his regional visits. He merely bowed to the Saudi king, attempted to appease Muslim critics of America, told the story of the creation of Israel as a mere compensation for the Holocaust, and so on. But no apology, strictly speaking.
10:15 p.m. EDT: The debate is now well and truly out of control. The audience bursts into applause at the moderator's affirmation that Obama called the embassy attacks an "act of terror." Romney--unwisely--walked into the ambush by giving Obama credit for something he did not actually say (see my article here). (Update 11:07 p.m.: Checking the transcript, it seems that Romney actually was challenging the premise.) This has been the only weak moment for Romney during the entire debate, and allowed Obama to enjoy a brief hit at his rival's expense. (Tellingly, Obama's high-pitched voice disappears shortly thereafter--back to no-drama Obama.) Crowley seems to have had a pang of conscience about letting Romney be abused, both by her and by the audience, and makes the point--from the moderator's chair--that Romney is correct that the administration claimed for two weeks that the attack in Benghazi had been the result of a "demonstration." Expect the left and the media (but I repeat myself) to celebrate this unfortunate and counterfactual exchange.
Romney, Obama, and Crowley were all wrong--but only Romney really suffered because of the uniquely warped setup of this debate, which Crowley has turned into an anti-Republican gauntlet. Despite her promise to ask follow-ups, she fails to point out that Obama did not answer the question that had been posed to him.
10:22 p.m. EDT: And to top it off... another question that favors Obama, this time on gun control. And the moderator, who failed to press Obama on his evasions in response to a direct question about the Libya scandal, presses Romney about his position on gun control, declaring from the moderator's chair that Romney has changed his position. Obama, naturally, merely repeats the point, taking advantage of the setup. And although he does not add anything to what Crowley said, he insists on having more time to speak further.
10:30 p.m. EDT: The penultimate question revisits territory that has already been covered. China and overseas jobs. We're not hearing anything that we haven't heard before, from both sides. Obama is running his attack on Romney--his false attack--that the Republican nominee favors tax advantages for big businesses that ship jobs overseas. He does not talk about the fact that a) he failed to change anything about those supposedly unfair taxes in four years, and b) the tax adjustments are necessary because the U.S. is one of the only countries that taxes the overseas earnings of its companies, a distinct competitive disadvantage.
10:32 p.m. EDT: Crowley interrupts another Romney answer. It's beyond absurd--it is, frankly, disgusting.
10:34 p.m. EDT: A final question--again opposed to Romney--though it's a setup for a positive rebuttal, asking Romney what misperception of him he would most like to correct. As Romney says: "That's an opportunity for me, and I appreciate it." Boy, does he ever--it's the only one he's had. Romney replies that he cares about the "100 percent"--perhaps pre-empting Obama's rebuttal, but also reminding people of the "47 percent" remark, which Obama had not yet used. Obama's own answer to the question is that he does not believe that government creates jobs. That's about as stark a lie as anything he's said all night. And Obama--either unleashing an attack he had prepared, or picking up an attack Romney had invited--goes to a long speech about the 47 percent. And so the debate ends--with Obama reiterating the anti-Romeny misperception.
FINAL ANALYSIS: I think that Romney won overall, particularly on the economy. He did so against truly astounding opposition from the moderator, Candy Crowley, who selected a list of questions that were almost entirely geared to Obama's perspective and aimed at Romney's weaknesses. Crowley also interrupted nearly every single substantive rebuttal by Romney to accusations by Obama. The key for Romney was making nearly every question about jobs and economic growth. Overall, he also sounded more positive than Obama, who focused almost entirely on attacking his opponent. Romney made one significant error on Libya--an unforced, avoidable error based on the media's own false premise. (Update: Again, I misinterpreted what Romney was doing--he was challenging the premise before Crowley intervened.) The effect was that Obama was let off the hook on Libya, and Crowley--instead of pressing Obama to answer the question he had been asked--allowed the audience to applaud the president, against the explicit rules of the debate and to Romney's detriment. I thought both candidates missed many opportunities to appeal to national unity and to evoke bipartisanship.
The result? I think Romney more or less maintained his position, and likely his lead in the polls. I think Obama gained more from the debate, though, both because he had done so poorly the first time and because he was able to use the moderator, the questions (selected by the moderator), and the audience (undisciplined by the moderator) to whistle past his own culpability in the Libya scandal. The great loser is the American public. This was not a debate, as advertised, but an interrogation of Mitt Romney. It was a test he passed, but that cannot excuse Crowley's behavior, which far exceeded anything Martha Raddatz was accused of last week.
Some advice for Republicans: do not accept mainstream media liberals as the only debate moderators; do not accept the mainstream media's false premises as a basis for answering questions; and do not accept a setup of "undecided" voters in a liberal state where "undecided" is often the difference between center-left and far-left.
Postscript: Here is the transcript of the exchange over Libya. It is now clear to me that Romney was attempting to challenge Obama's claim before Crowley intervened in Obama's favor. Perhaps Romney would have been better served simply by pointing out that Obama had dodged the question. Regardless, he was actually working towards debunking Obama's claim--until Crowley, unwisely and unfairly, slapped him down:
ROMNEY: I -- I think interesting the president just said something which -- which is that on the day after the attack he went into the Rose Garden and said that this was an act of terror.
OBAMA: That's what I said.
ROMNEY: You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack, it was an act of terror.
It was not a spontaneous demonstration, is that what you're saying?
OBAMA: Please proceed governor.
ROMNEY: I want to make sure we get that for the record because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.
OBAMA: Get the transcript.
CROWLEY: It -- it -- it -- he did in fact, sir. So let me -- let me call it an act of terror...
OBAMA: Can you say that a little louder, Candy?
CROWLEY: He -- he did call it an act of terror. It did as well take -- it did as well take two weeks or so for the whole idea there being a riot out there about this tape to come out. You are correct about that.
ROMNEY: This -- the administration -- the administration indicated this was a reaction to a video and was a spontaneous reaction.