About last night: Obama and Romney hate each other. Did we learn anything else?

Walter Shapiro
Yahoo News

The atmosphere between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney grew so toxic during Tuesday night’s donnybrook of a debate that you half-expected moderator Candy Crowley and the citizen questioners to don hazmat suits for protection.

So if Romney is elected in November, you can just imagine the frosty silence on Inauguration Day 2013 during the traditional, the-torch-is-passed presidential limousine ride from the White House to the Capitol. For all the attention devoted to “The Presidents Club”—the hidden bonds between current and former occupants of the Oval Office—it is hard to envision Obama and Romney ever becoming secret chums like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

That in-your-face personal enmity between the two candidates was one of the few revelations that emerged from an evening of haymakers at Hofstra. Obama’s aggressiveness may have revived his wilting poll numbers, but beyond the theatrics, little that either candidate said provided new insights into how he would govern from the Oval Office in 2013.

Romney did make a few new commitments during the debate that will go on his campaign-promises scorecard, if elected. With the personalization that comes from a town-meeting debate, Romney told the first questioner, college student Jeremy Epstein, “When you come out in 2014—and I assume I’m going to be president—I’m going to make sure you get a job.”

As the clock ticks toward Jeremy’s 2014 graduation, you can just picture the nervousness in the Romney White House over his job prospects. “Is Jeremy applying himself?” the anxious president would ask his aides. “Is he going on job interviews? Do you think he should borrow money from his parent to start a business?”

On a more substantive level, Romney critiqued Obama’s failure to press for immigration reform and pledged, “I’ll get it done, first year.” As a candidate who ballyhooed “self-deportation” during the Republican primaries, Romney’s vision of new legislation emphasizes legal immigration (green cards for “people that graduate with the skills that we need”) rather than the shadowy world of those residing here without papers. The Republican nominee did repeat his vague promise to provide a pathway to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants, but the only exit ramp he specified was through military service.

For his part, Obama did little to fill in the blurry outlines of his second-term agenda. Sure, the president repeated his familiar refrain on the economy: “What I want to do is build on the 5 million jobs that we’ve created over the last 30 months in the private sector alone. … I want to build manufacturing jobs in this country again.” But what the president is really offering is his personal variant on the 1960s credo, “Keep on truckin’.”

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Emblematic of his transformation from the President Nebbish of the first debate, Obama hit his mark Tuesday night by ending his final answer, “That’s why I’m asking for your vote and that’s why I’m asking for another four years.”

But what Obama actually pledged in his final answer was little more than “I want to fight” on behalf of the 47 percent of Americans whom Romney belittled in his infamous fundraiser tape. This may be politically astute on Obama’s part, but it is not exactly a fully marked bridge to the end of the next presidential term in 2017.

Like all incumbent presidents running for a second term, Obama remains (for better or for worse) a known quantity. As the challenger, Romney understandably faces a higher standard of expectation in spelling out his vision for governing from the Oval Office. But too often Tuesday night, Romney fell back on bromides and boilerplate from the campaign trail. During the final minutes of the debate, Romney declared: “Government does not create jobs. Government does not create jobs.” Governor, we heard you the first time.

There is a risk in overanalyzing Romney’s tax reform plan because, like all campaign-trail initiatives, it would be revamped from the White House. But without getting caught up in the numbers game, there was a something-free-for-everyone quality to Romney’s debate rhetoric. He promised that upper-income Americans, as a group, would shoulder the same share of the overall tax burden as today. And he pledged, “Middle-income people are going to get a tax break.”

So who would pay more? The Chinese? Hobos living in packing crates? Binders filled with women?

It may be naïve to hope for new thoughts, new proposals and new arguments in presidential debates. They have always been as much about performance and aura as they are about Oval Office policies. Around this time in 1960, John Kennedy and Richard Nixon were battling over two obscure islands off the coast of China, Quemoy and Matsu. By that historic standard of irrelevancy, there was something gloriously tangible about both Obama and Romney worrying about whether Jeremy would have a job in 2014.

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