Stormy debate, clear contrast

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama spar Wednesday night during the second presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney left many of the Town Hall audience’s questions unanswered Tuesday night. They consistently reverted to talking points that have become so familiar as to be a bit tedious by now. They also repeatedly questioned each other’s credibility.

Yet that second presidential debate, like the first, left no question on this point: The policies advocated by Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney offer a compelling contrast for American voters. Across a wide range of issues, from energy to taxes to entitlements to immigration and beyond, they propose distinctly divergent solutions to our nation’s problems.

Mr. Obama, despite insisting late in the debate that he does not think “government creates jobs,” routinely takes credit for government creating jobs —and did so again Tuesday night in Hempstead, N.Y.

Conversely, Mr. Romney, who decries Mr. Obama’s “trickle-down government” policies, sounds much more sincere in his praise of free enterprise.

Though fact checkers are still conducting a debate of their own over some of the “facts” advanced by the candidates Tuesday night, an assertive president clearly rebounded from a lackluster first-debate performance.

Just as clearly, however, Mr. Romney held his ground — and frequently offered reminders of certifiable facts that recommend a change in the White House.

He revisited the president’s dismal first-term economic results, including four straight trillion-dollar-plus deficits that have added more than $5 trillion to the national debt.

And: “You’ve seen, as middle-income people in this country, incomes go down $4,300 a family even as gasoline prices have gone up $2,000.”

And near the debate’s end:

“The unemployment, the number of people who are still looking for work, is still 23 million Americans. There are more people in poverty — one out of six people in poverty. How about food stamps? When he took office, 32 million people were on food stamps; today 47 million people are on food stamps. How about the growth of the economy? It’s growing more slowly this year than last year and more slowly last year than the year before.”

The president’s campaign was hailing some other numbers after the debate: A CBS poll of uncommitted voters deemed him the Town Hall winner by a 37-30 percent margin, with 33 percent calling it a draw. A CNN survey of registered voters gave Mr. Obama a 46-39 edge.

The president did gamely, albeit briefly, try to erase the reality of his overall economic futility Tuesday night. He hailed his bailout of General Motors and Chrysler — a process that began under the previous presidential administration.

But Mr. Obama also offered this curious explanation for why gas prices were under half of today’s level when he took office on Jan. 20, 2009:

“Why is that? Because the economy was on the verge of collapse, because we were about to go through the worst recession since the Great Depression as a consequence of some of the same policies that Gov. Romney is now promoting. So it’s conceivable that Gov. Romney could bring down gas prices, because with his policies we might be back in that same mess.”

Does that mean today’s high gas prices should encourage us as a sign of prosperity — even with the jobless rate still painfully high?

President Obama fared much better when attacking Mr. Romney’s ideas than when defending his own.

For instance, he argued that when Mr. Romney was running Bain Capital, if somebody had come to him with a business proposition akin to his tax-cut plan, the CEO “wouldn’t have taken such a sketchy deal.”

The most intense moment of political theater came in the late dust-up over what the president did — and didn’t — say on Sept. 12 about the Sept. 11 terror attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

During Monday night’s final debate, which will focus on foreign policy, perhaps the president will even finally answer the question that triggered the heated exchange.

As a Town Hall audience member put it after citing the U.S. staff’s request for more security at the Benghazi consulate: “Who was it that denied enhanced security and why?”

So for more debate insights, drama and even farce, tune in again Monday night to see where, how and why these candidates differ on America’s role in the world.

And if you’re still among the relatively few who haven’t decided which man should get your vote, ponder where our nation has been, where it is and where it should go on both the domestic and foreign fronts.

Because regardless of their many disagreements, Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney rightly concur on this fact that needs no more checking:

They aim to lead America in very different directions.