I don’t know why they bothered to go to New York last night for the second presidential debate. They should have just stayed in Ohio. After all, the subtext of this second presidential debate was all Ohio, all the time. At every opportunity the two candidates came back to the three C’s that matter in Ohio — cars, China and coal. If this seemed a little strange to everyone else in the country it made perfect sense in the dynamic of this campaign.
After the last debate, a presidential race that was opening up in favor of the president closed back up due to a lackluster debate by Barack Obama and an unexpectedly good performance by former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. By the time the second debate rolled around last night, though Obama still held an edge in the electoral college, the race had gotten so close that it looked like it was coming down to who could win Ohio.
Hence the three C’s.
In the first few minutes of the debate the two men erupted into a testy exchange on the wisdom of the auto bailout. Romney was clearly on the defensive, arguing that his approach — allowing the industry to go into bankruptcy and restructure — would have been better. Meantime, Obama pressed the fact that it was his Administration that was responsible for the resurgence of the auto industry. For those of you who don’t know – they make cars and they make car parts in Ohio. Unemployment there is below the national average thanks to the health of the auto industry. Thus, reminding people that Romney opposed the auto bailout has been very good for the president.
As for the second C, China, people in Ohio, a manufacturing state, are very worried about the Asian nation and its unfair economic practices and currency manipulation. Days before last night’s debate the two campaigns opened up an ad war in the state, with each one arguing that the other hadn’t done enough to blunt China’s trade practices. In the minds of unemployed or underemployed Ohioans China is public enemy number one, which explains why Obama worked to remind voters that Romney’s business career included being a “pioneer of outsourcing” and Romney pledged that he would end China’s currency manipulation. China also accounts for the oddest moment of the evening, when Romney went off topic to point out that his investments were in a blind trust that they probably included Chinese investments and that he was sure Obama’s retirement savings included similar investments too!
And as for the third C, Coal, it too figured prominently in last night’s debate. Coal is a major source of CO2 emissions — and therefore global warming — in the world today. Though global warming wasn’t even mentioned, the way coal was talked about, you’d think it was a wonderful new energy source. Coal, however, is particularly important in — you guessed it — Ohio! In that state coal is used to generate 82 percent of the state’s electricity — making it one of the highest in the nation. The national average is 45 percent. Romney wants desperately to be a friend of coal — meaning a friend of cheap energy for Ohio. President Obama wants the same thing.
The fact that this debate was really all about Ohio is testament to what a large impact the first debate had on the race. Clearly Obama was back on his game — aggressive, articulate and awake. “I did what I said I would do,” said the president and then listed all that he promised and all that he delivered.
His criticism of Romney’s tax plan was also, in contrast to the first debate, much more pointed, “You wouldn’t have taken such a sketchy deal,” the President told Romney as he criticized the lack of specificity in the tax deal.
Romney’s night was not as good as his first night, for one thing Obama was so much better that the contrast between the two wasn’t as dramatic. Romney fumbled the Libya attack that his campaign had been carefully setting up for the past week. But Romney’s biggest lost opportunity came in response to the best question of the night — perhaps of the campaign — How does Romney differ from the last Republican president, George W. Bush? Romney’s answer to this question was weak and instead of differentiating himself from the former president – he made excuses for Bush. So last night’s debate probably slowed Romney’s momentum.
All in all, the heightened focus on the few issues important to winning Ohio took away from the rest of the conversation. Next week, they should move the debate to Cleveland.