On a snowy night in Vermont in February of 1964, I was listening to a radio along with other kids in a ski lodge as Cassius Clay, the 1960 Olympics boxing gold medalist, was getting ready to take on world heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston in a ring not too far away in Lewiston, Maine. Almost before the fight began, it was over. Clay (soon to be known as Muhammad Ali) had knocked out Liston in one of the most dramatic fights in boxing history. The media couldn't believe t. They had been favoring Liston for an easy win and were generally hostile to Clay's feisty style. The spin machine was proven wrong, though, and there in the newspapers the next day was the new heavyweight champion, standing over the defeated Liston, daring him to get off of the canvas and to try to fight some more. Liston didn't.
So it seems with President Barack Obama's performance in last night's presidential debate in the suburban Long Island town of Hempstead, New York. As with Clay the media had done everything that they could to write off Obama's performance in the first debate in Denver, and admittedly Obama, while preserving his likability, treated the event more like a press conference than an adversarial contest. But for the second debate, Obama came ready to bring the contest to his opponent fast and hard. and like the boxer Clay/Ali, he had an opponent who hadn't changed his strategy to hide his fundamental weaknesses. In fact, like Liston, Romney left himself wide open to critiques and counters that played into Obama's strongest points easily. Ali's famous saying was "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." Obama managed to float above the "meanness" factor to maintain his likability but to sting Romney hard on the facts and on the fiction of his snake oil agenda.
The format helped Obama in ways that the first debate could note. As I posted earlier, the loose debate format for the first encounter between Romney and Obama meant that there would be little opportunity for Obama to appear like a President. So, wisely, like Ali in his famous encounter with George Foreman in Zaire in 1974, Obama laid back against the loose ropes of Jim Leherer's hapless moderation and let Romney hit some blows that ultimately made Romney overconfident. By contrast, both the venue and the moderator for the second debate made for much more effective conditions for Obama to bring his best fight to Romney like a champion. The town hall setting was laid out very much like a boxing ring, with room for the two opponent to pace around and to bring their arguments both to the undecided voters in the hall and to one another. And unlike Lehrer, Candy Crowley worked like a masterful boxing referee to keep both parties fighting fair and on time.
Crowley's deft handling helped Obama in a couple of ways. She managed first to force Romney to focus on the facts and to have to spell out his agenda. Since Romney's agenda is fundamentally anti-middle-class, that forced Romney to expose himself on the facts - where Obama could counter easily. Crowley's refutation of Romney's cheap blow on claiming that Obama had not referenced the Benghazi embassy attack as a terrorist act in his Rose Garden speech immediately afterwards came through as clearly as a boxing referee calling a fighter on shots below the belt. She did it cleanly, and the debate went on. But mostly Crowley's presence allowed the viewers to see some fundamental differences in the two candidates' attitudes towards fairness. Romney was constantly trying to extend his remarks past the allotted time and trying to treat Crowley like a troublesome servant. By contrast, Obama was mostly very observant of Crowley's time limits, allowing the debate to move on to the next question. This was in part, no doubt, because he knew that he was racking up winning rounds with every question from the audience. Only towards the end did he get a little eager to fight back at the end of a round of questions, but even then he was very respectful of Crowley's role as he hit hard to get his points in - a fact that no doubt played well with women voters.
Amazingly, though, Romney saved his worst for the last moments of the debate. Like Liston with Clay, he seemed to think little of Obama's ability to hit him at his weakest points. Instead of staying away from his famous 47 percent videotaped remark, as he had done in the first debate, for unknown reasons he tried to spin that fundraiser remark in his last statement in the debate into a weak repackaging of himself being for 100 percent of the people. Given Obama's strong painting of him as otherwise during the debate, that set the stage for Obama to hit him back hard on what his 47 percent remark really meant - for Romney was sincere when he exposed his disdain for people needing aid as victims. Obama deftly ticked off a laundry list of ways in which subsidies for education, business and other key functions enable the opportunity economy for more people rather than just a handful of rich folks. He hit hard, clean and convincingly on this list, and had the last word without rebuttal from Romney. The fight was over, Obama had Romney on the canvas, knocked out cleanly. And like Liston that night in Lewiston, Maine, Romney never quite understood how he had gotten there by his own weaknesses and the masterful strengths of Obama.
For liberals who howled for a combative Obama, they got it. For undecideds who wanted to understand Obama's policies, they got that, as well as the stripping away of the thin tinsel of false promises from Romney's weak platform that is only a trap door for the middle class to fall through. For women, they got as clear a contrast as possible between one candidate who understood their needs and one who didn't even know that women existed in the workplace until an activist group placed a binder filled with qualified women at his doorstep. For everyone else, well, you saw a President who could state clearly what he had been doing for four years and what needed to be done in the next four years to set the stage for growth and prosperity for decades to come.
There will be a third debate with a foreign policy focus, which is neither likely to play to Romney's strengths nor be likely to play to as large an audience, so color the debates done for the most part. If CNN can refrain from calling every Obama victory in polls that is less than ten points a "tie," then perhaps we can move on to accepting that there is only one candidate left standing in this election. The rest is just corporate media commentators holding on to their jobs and vote-fixers huddled in back rooms trying to keep it an unfair game between the average American and the forces of ultra-rich egotists. America, your champion is ready for you. We can sympathize little for the man on the canvas who did his best to put himself there.