Mitt the Naïve Bully

In the second presidential debate against Barack Obama, Mitt Romney crossed the line between confidence and arrogance.

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Mitt Romney speaks as Barack Obama listens during a town hall style debate at Hofstra University October 16, 2012 in Hempstead, N.Y.
Mitt Romney speaks as Barack Obama listens during a town hall style debate at Hofstra University October 16, 2012 in Hempstead, N.Y.

Powerful men sometimes forget what it's like to be challenged—by anyone, and perhaps, especially by a woman. And it comes out when you get them on a debate stage.

This may have been President Barack Obama's trouble in the first debate. Obama treated the whole exercise like he was talking to his cabinet, or perhaps delivering a lecture to a law school class. He wasn't defensive—powerful men don't think they need to be defensive, since they are the last word on decision-making. But Obama, much to the dismay of his supporters, didn't defend himself at all, and let Mitt Romney walk all over him. This is part of the downside of being president: You get used to being the final word and get rusty on the skills that got you to that top-dog position to begin with.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

Romney, meanwhile, displayed in the second presidential debate the sort of dismissiveness and aggressiveness developed by someone who's been a CEO. The Romney we saw last night was the Romney who is used to being in a boardroom, not asking for permission to do something or making an argument about why he wants to do something, but telling the group what his decision was. Period. And he wasn't about to give up the floor, since the floor belongs to the CEO.

He interrupted the president, showing not just a disregard for debate civility but a disrespect for the man himself. When stellar moderator Candy Crowley tried to tell Romney she was moving onto the next question—her right and her role as moderator—Romney talked over her, ignoring her, insisting he was going to finish. It verged on bullying, with Romney waving her off as though he was on the set of Mad Men and she was his secretary. At one point, when Romney and Obama were in a testy back-and-forth, Romney turned to the leader of the free world and said, "You'll get your turn"—as though it were his (or any candidate's) role to monitor the rules, instead of the moderator's role.

There's a fine line between confidence and arrogance, between being assertive and being a bully. Men who end up on the presidential debate stage have generally achieved positions in government and business that gives them a distorted idea of their power. They start to think they can do things by fiat, their power inherent in the title they possess. Many find the landscape to be far more complicated when they actually get to the White House.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Mitt Romney.]

Romney thinks he can just look and talk tough internationally, calling China a "currency manipulator" and threatening Iran, and the foreign nations will fall into line. It doesn't work that way. And Romney thinks that he can do all sorts of things "on day one" of his would-be presidency, and pass all sorts of domestic legislation on immigration, healthcare, and tax policy. Good luck with that. Democrats in the Senate—even if they lose the majority, which is looking less likely—will filibuster it. Obama found that out the hard way. Romney's faux disbelief that Obama couldn't get immigration reform done even though he had Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate was beyond naive. There's really no such thing as a majority in the Senate anymore, except when it comes to the election of the Majority Leader, since the minority can filibuster. And having a so-called "filibuster-proof" majority of 60 or more votes is a joke; if either party has that many votes, by definition, some of those in the caucus are much more conservative or liberal than their party's leaders. And if anything, having 60 in one's caucus just gives every member a chance to make demands as the "deciding" vote.

If there's a big lie that gets told by candidates in both parties in an election, it's that showing "leadership" will get a president his way. Lead, sure. But don't try to bully. That doesn't work in a debate, it doesn't work in dealing with foreign governments, and it won't work with Congress.

  • Read Leslie Marshall: President Obama Clearly Beat Mitt Romney in the Second Debate
  • Read Peter Roff: Ross Perot's Romney Endorsement Proves It's OK to Vote Republican
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