Following the first presidential debate twelve days ago, it quickly became received wisdom that Mitt Romney had won a major victory over a Barack Obama who was not trying very hard.
I found this a bit puzzling. I gave Romney a win on points, but didn't see any stunning upset. I was not alone in my un-stunned-ness, either: out here on the dissident right, neither Steve Sailer nor Peter Brimelow (word of mouth) were impressed by Romney. Among the bigfoot commentariat, too, there were dissenters: Brit Hume of Fox News was similarly un-stunned.
My best guess as to what happened is something like this.
Leftist commentators had all internalized the notion that Barack Obama is the most intelligent, quick-witted, socially-dominant Master of the Universe ever to appear among mortals. When, in that first debate, he failed to leave Mitt Romney on the floor in a fetal position, quivering and weeping, they were aghast. They turned angrily on their hero. (As some wit remarked when Obamamania first swept the nation: The problem with being taken for Jesus Christ is that you're setting yourself up for crucifixion.)
For conservatives, even for us Romney skeptics, the rage of the left was delicious to watch. I especially enjoyed seeing Chris Matthews' head explode.
Everyone was thus caught up in the Romney-triumph story. Meanwhile, a great many not-very-attentive citizens had gotten their first real look at Romney, and seen that he is a much more agreeable fellow than the cartoon capitalist the mainstream media had been describing to them these past few months. That gave Romney's poll numbers a bump.
Well, that's my theory. If it's wrong, I must have missed something important in that first debate, a thing I am of course loth to admit.
I thus paid very careful attention to the second debate. Here is what I saw.
Format. The "town hall meeting" format allowed both candidates to roam freely in the open space in front of the moderator and audience. This was good for Obama, as he needed, or believed he needed, to show some fight.
Romney did not need to show that; but probably he had figured that Obama would be aggressive, and he could not afford to be less so.
The whole thing was therefore pretty combative physically. On invasions of personal space, I actually think Romney came out ahead, but neither man was a shrinking violet.
Questions. The audience questions were vetted in advance. The vetters of course culled off any topic out of the political mainstream, as defined by people like themselves—unimaginative herd-following media hacks with a horror of strong opinions.
The actual topics were:
I live in Long Island just a few miles from Hofstra University, where the debate was held. I've lived here for twenty years. I know what people talk about here in the privacy of a neighbor's backyard barbecue. That list of question topics is not grossly unrepresentative, though I have never heard anyone bring up the pay inequity business.
There was, though, one anomaly in the questioning.
Immigration. Long Island has for years been plagued by illegal aliens. The island has produced one of the most vigorous and forthright restrictionist movements, Sachem Quality of Life—vigorous and forthright enough to get noticed by the $PLC thought police. Public feeling here against illegals is strong, and often bitterly expressed.
Yet that one question on illegal immigration in the Hofstra debate was asked by a lady with a strong Spanish accent.
Plenty of my American-born non-Hispanic Long Island friends and neighbors would have been glad of the opportunity to question a presidential candidate on illegal immigration. However, the rule seems to be that only members of designated victim groups may ask questions about their supposed victimhood. (In the same spirit, the question on male-female pay inequity was asked by a woman.)
The immigration question was also phrased tendentiously: "What do you plan on doing with immigrants without their green cards that are currently living here as productive members of society?"
"Immigrants without their green cards"? Like, you know, "drivers without their licenses," or "lawyers without their bar certifications."
Both candidates commenced their replies with the ritual incantation that we are a nation of immigrants, a thing long ago debunked by the proprietor of this website. (Alien Nation, pp. 204-206.)
They then diverged, Romney emphasizing respect for legal immigrants: "There are four million people who are waiting in line to get here legally. Those who come here illegally take their place. So I will not grant amnesty to those who come here illegally . . ." This is an acceptably positive way for a candidate to come at the immigration issue.
The governor did, however, repeat his implication that the U.S.A. needs more mathematicians and scientists, a thing that has not been proved and can reasonably be doubted.
He also insulted patriotic young Americans like my son who wish to take up a military career by telling them they must compete for recruitment opportunities with the children of illegals. Doesn't anyone ever get called on this?
Obama extruded a string of clichés: fix broken system . . . pathway to citizenship . . . undocumented workers . . .
It was at about this point that I noticed the President's fondness for the word "folks." Sample: "If we're going to go after folks who are here illegally, we should do it smartly and go after folks who are criminals . . . not after folks who are here just because they're trying to figure out how to feed their families."
I suppose the message here is humani nihil a me alienum puto: Nothing human is alien to our President. These undocumented workers, even the ones who work at raping schoolgirls or robbing banks, are his brothers and sisters. Heaven forbid anyone should think he nurses negative feelings towards any of them—towards any of these folks!
Obama proceeded to accuse Romney of promoting self-deportation: "Making life so miserable on folks that they'll leave."
My spirits sank here. Self-deportation used to be the kinder'n'gentler option to actual forcible deportation. It was thus promoted by the mild'n'careful, er, folks at the Center for Immigration Studies.
Yet now, illustrating a phenomenon for which I think I'll coin the phrase "hate creep," it is inhumane to enforce the people's laws with sufficient rigor as to make illegals want to pack up and go home. How far will the hate creep creep? In another election cycle or two perhaps it will be thought shameful—hateful!—of a presidential candidate to suggest that illegals should be barred from voting or running for public office.
Then: "[Romney] called the Arizona law a model for the nation. A part of the Arizona law said that law-enforcement officers could stop folks because they suspected maybe they looked like they may be undocumented workers."
That brought out Romney's natural cowardice. Instead of standing up for Arizona's widely popular law S.B. 1070, the Governor shucked and jived, declaring he had only approved the law's employer verification provisions.
It was a sorry showing. Let us be grateful for small mercies, though: At least immigration was mentioned this time around.
Who won? I pass. When two squids engage by blowing ink at each other for ninety minutes, it's hard to make a judgement about who came out ahead.
Other people—I mean of course folks—may form different opinions. The most I will commit myself to is to say that both candidates were plainly trying hard.
John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him. He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimismand several other books. His writings are archived atJohnDerbyshire.com.
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