Last night during the debate, I found myself yelling at the television screen—"Obama! Look us in the eye! Call him out on his lies! Finish your goddamn sentence! At least fact-check him on Medicare!"
Mitt Romney was aiming for the swing vote last night, taking every opportunity to gravitate toward the middle. He crumpled up his campaign talking points and threw them in the trash, spinning a dreamworld where his Obamacare alternative suddenly covered people with pre-existing conditions, his tax plan suddenly didn't cost five trillion dollars, his budget wouldn't touch Medicare, and his education policy showered teachers with love. As Mother Jones reporter Adam Serwer quipped on Twitter, his plan for the nation had "all of the candy and none of the broccoli." It was one big—dare I say it?—flip-flop.
This didn't bother me. The man had seen his sagging poll numbers and knew he needed to make nice with that 47 percent, even if it meant Etch-a-sketching his entire collection of campaign promises. What pissed me off was that Obama laid down and took it.
His strategy clearly was to not make things worse—to not render himself vulnerable to sound bites no matter what. If a remark made Obama look like the slightest bit of a jerk, his people reasoned, that was worse than Romney getting in a few attacks. It explains why the phrase "47 percent" wasn't uttered the entire night. The Obama campaign figures it's already doing its damage without the president playing bad cop.
Intellectually I understood this, but I still felt irrationally angry at Obama. I'm progressive and planning on voting for him, but obsessive Obama-lover I'm not. I knew four years ago that I was voting for a charismatic centrist who wouldn't transform the country as we knew it. Yet here I was again, wishing my president would go on the attack and call his opponent out, even though there's nothing in his record that intimates he's willing to do that. Here I was again, projecting my fantasies onto someone who couldn't make them true.
Liberals have been doing this to themselves ever since they wiped their tears at Obama's Grant Park speech on election night—they've concocted an ally that'll swoop in and defend our honor. Conservatives, meanwhile, have contorted Obama into a radical bogeyman on a socialist crusade. Last night, both of those inventions were shattered. The reality had never been clearer: Mitt Romney will fight dirty, and Obama will not.