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BOXING metaphors are hard to duck when the contestants are as pugnacious as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were at Hofstra University. If their first meeting was a one-sided pummeling by Mr. Romney, and the Joe Biden-Paul Ryan debate offered a classic boxer-vs.-puncher matchup, this one was one long, grueling bout of infighting, not pretty, not artful, just intended to do damage.
Of course the president performed better than in the first debate in Denver. He could only have performed worse had he entered the auditorium with a zombie gait and bitten Candy Crowley. He attacked Mr. Romney's business record, his primary-campaign rhetoric, and his honesty. The former Massachusetts governor, abandoning the good-humored confidence and well-timed potshots that served him well in the first debate, accepted the toe-to-toe challenge, vociferously painting Mr. Obama's first term as an abject failure. A plurality of viewers thought that the president "won" on points, an opinion we share.
But the real value of these debates isn't in the entertainment they deliver line by line or exchange by exchange. It's in what they reveal about larger matters--not always obvious as sharp words fly and adrenaline rushes. Tuesday's debate revealed at least two major weaknesses, one per candidate:
1. Mr. Romney's plan to cut tax rates, boost military spending by $2 trillion, and balance the budget, without doing any harm to such middle-class boons as the mortgage deduction, makes sense--if you throw into the kettle wool of bat, adder's fork, and howlet's wing, and know the right magic words to suspend the laws of budgetary mathematics. Mr. Romney's fanciful formula, indeed, reminds us of the promise of Mr. Obama in 2008 that he would expand entitlements like crazy and cut the debt. We all know how that worked.
2. Mr. Obama was unable to successfully defend his domestic record--his signature achievement, health care reform, he hardly mentioned--or to say how the next four years would be different if he were re-elected. The excuse of Republican obstructionism hardly washes. Mr. Obama enjoyed a Democratic Senate and House during his first two years, and he made no use of the mass media, à la Ronald Reagan, to exhort the American public to lean on obstinate Congress members.
Apart from its glum implication that neither candidate has a viable program to restore anything resembling economic health--even a high 7.8 percent jobless rate looks better than it is because of growing workforce "nonparticipation" and the part-time, no-benefits nature of most new jobs--the debate was noteworthy for raising another issue, the lethal attack on the Benghazi consulate.
Mr. Romney opened that trick by flaying the president for flying to a Las Vegas fundraiser the day after the slaughter of four Americans in the Libyan city, and for refusing to pin the attack on terrorists--instead implying it sprang spontaneously from Muslim anger about an anti-Islam video rather than an administration asleep at the switch. Mr. Obama indeed went to Vegas after giving a Rose Garden speech about the attack. However, he rebutted the rest of Mr. Romney's charge by saying that in that speech he called the perpetrators terrorists.
Mr. Romney (to Ms. Crowley, incredulous): 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.
Ms. Crowley was almost right. In his speech, the president assailed "all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others"--a veiled reference to the video. He next--that being Sept. 12--conjured "the solemn memory of the 9/11 attacks" of 2001. Then, after juxtaposing 9/11 and the Benghazi murders: "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation."
Manifestly, Mr. Romney charged into this fight half-cocked, evidently unaware that the president had uttered the word "terror" during the speech. Just as clearly, however, the administration spent days insisting that video-sparked mob violence, not a well-planned al-Qaida-like raid, underlay the crime.
The New York Times: "Five days after the attack, the American representative to the United Nations, Susan E. Rice, continued to describe it as a spontaneous protest, and it was only on Sept. 19 that Mr. [Matthew] Olsen of the National Counterterrorism Center called it a terrorist attack." Even Ms. Crowley after deflating Mr. Romney tried to concede the overall validity of his point, but ended up proving only that without a script journalists can be as incomprehensible as politicians.
Rough stuff, all around--just as it's a rough time to be an American. Don't expect to see any kid gloves Monday in Debate III, Boca Raton. The country's future is worth a good scrap.