Debate Discomfort: Was There Too Much Tension?

Last night's encounter was more like a playground squabble between two men who needed a time out

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama spar over energy policy during the second presidential debate at Hofstra University, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012, in Hempstead, N.Y.

If I hadn’t spent much of my life in the political process, I might have switched to the ball game. More than anything else, I found last night’s debate uncomfortable and often unpleasant to watch. The exchanges were too visceral, the disdain too palpable. At some moments, with the candidates stalking the stage, aiming fingers and accusations at each other, the mother in me wanted to send both men to their corners for time out. I suspect that moderator Candy Crowley, a mom of two sons herself, often felt the same way.

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President Obama’s supporters wanted their candidate to engage with more passion and purpose, and he aggressively — sometimes too aggressively —rebounded from his lackluster, “I’d rather be anywhere than here” performance in the first debate. Governor Romney once again did a better job of articulating a vision for the next four years, especially obvious since President Obama again failed to outline any agenda for a second term.

But by and large, I suspect the debate largely reinforced the opinions of those who’ve already made up their minds. I watched the debate from Romney campaign headquarters in Northern Virginia, where supporters found much to cheer. Romney’s strongest moments came as he outlined his plans to help the struggling middle class, and he came across as the person best qualified to improve the economy and increase jobs. President Obama’s supporters were giddy that he aggressively attacked Romney’s economic plan, and he earned points with a strong answer accepting responsibility for the actions of his administration in Libya.

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But what was communicated most loudly was the tension between the two men. They quarreled about time and rules, talked over each other and interrupted the moderator. Going into the debate, President Obama’s team signaled a special interest in appealing to women voters, given this week’s polls showing Romney’s strong first debate performance succeeded in erasing what had been a significant gender gap. But I suspect most women found Obama’s aggressive, sometimes angry, tone to be off-putting — like the tense moments before a fight breaks out when the guys are talking too loud and you just want to get out of there. And Romney’s pointed questions directly to President Obama not only violated the debate rules, but also seemed more like hectoring then genuinely seeking answers.

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The real winners of this debate were the citizen questioners, who asked thoughtful questions about issues Americans think and talk about:  gas prices, young people finding jobs after college, the difficult economy. With two debates down and just one to go, my advice to the candidates for next Monday is to talk with us rather than at each other. As Romney said, we can do better.