Horses, Bayonets, and the Sinking of Our Political Battleship at the Third Presidential Debate

The final debate lacked the novelty of the first debate, the antagonisms of the second debate, and Joe Biden’s laugh from the vice presidential debate. Everybody wanted to see it come to an end. We were ready to rip the Band-Aid off, even if a chunk of skin was gonna come off with it.

All photos by Clark Allen

“What time is it?” I asked Clark.

“7:48.”

“7:48?” I repeated.

“7:48. Just enough time to finish these tallboys.”

Just enough time, indeed. We sat on a curb in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans, watching people, who were remarkably drunk for 7:48, stagger down the street. One guy walked towards us. He stopped to pet a dog, almost fell over, and then swerved his way to our curb to ask us if we were drunk. Not yet, we told him. He hiked up his Dickies and walked off, mumbling incoherently. Two seconds later, a lady stumbled up to us. She made some indecipherable comments, before she dropped her keys twice, unlocked her truck, and drove away with her headlights off.

“What time is it?” I asked Clark.

“7:49.”

“7:49?” I repeated.

“Just enough time to finish these tallboys.”

I understood why the streets were filled with crazy drunk people. It was the series finale, the conclusion we’d all been waiting for, the final presidential debate. Along with the rest of the so-called civilized world, we couldn’t wait for it to be over. The 2012 election had been going on for something like seven years and everybody wanted to see it come to an end. We were ready to rip the Band-Aid off, even if a chunk of skin came off with it.

There’d been so much slander and bullshit spread on the campaign trail, it was getting hard to tell up from down. Both sides claimed the other was lying, while they each promised they were the ones telling the truth. But I was convinced that the Republicans and the Democrats had a lot more in common than they let on. Obama supported free market capitalism and Israel, and Romney really supported free market capitalism and Israel.

For this debate, my photographer Clark and I decided to check out a semi-secret New Orleans spot known loosely as the Bywater Country Club. The place was both classy and decadent, with fine dining upfront and a clothing-optional pool in the back. It had been brought to my attention that you could no longer have sex in the hot tub, a fact that I found both relieving and disheartening. Like all things this time of year, it had its pluses and minuses.

The bar was filled with an unexpected mix of people. A couple of cute girls and masculine dudes were giving us the eye, the bartenders were eyeing us, and a number of old people turned their eyes away from us. We nestled up to the bar and mentally prepared ourselves for what lay in store.

The night’s host was none other than Bob Schieffer, who may or may not have moderated the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Everyone knew that no matter what he did, he was going to be criticized later for how he handled the two candidates, both of whom planned on ignoring him at every opportunity.

Once again we had the pleasure of watching the debate on CNN, meaning the split-screen would come equipped with a live feed capturing the emotional response of undecided voters from Florida. I wondered if it was wired to a geriatric clinic filled with Alzheimer patients, before thinking about how much better it would be if the reactions were from inmates at the Napa State Mental Hospital. Something told me they’d give a more honest response.

At last, the candidates took their seats at the table. Obama wore a speckled blue tie and Romney wore a red one with blue stripes. I noticed Schieffer wore one similar to Romney, but with blue stripes more prominently pronounced, giving off the calculated aesthetic of impartiality. He brought up the Cuban missile crisis as an example of how important foreign policy could be, and then, skipping Cuba altogether, launched right into a question about Libya.

Romney, who won the coin toss, got to answer first. He mentioned a number of things that made him sound like he actually knew what he was talking about for once—like he’d finally sat down and read a newspaper. He preemptively brought up Osama Bin Laden to disarm the president, and then went on to say we couldn’t kill our way out of this mess, we had to help the Arab world. OK, great… Help how? He didn’t say. Mitt was being vague, but at least he was consistent in his ambiguity.

Obama had an answer too, and you could see it in how he approached his first term. He’d ended the war in Iraq, focused his attention on those who attacked us on 9/11, and was making Afghanistan take responsibility for their own country, which was winning us friends around the world. Making friends was the plan, and I guess I’ve heard of worse. If only my friends were so easy to please.

The debate started off pretty civil—a turn around from all the heated remarks tossed back and forth in the second debate. I noticed a few older ladies staring intently at the screen. Did they know that in the back of the bar there was a bunch of creepy naked guys? If they did, it didn’t seem to be affecting their appetites. I guess if you could eat while watching Mitt Romney talk, you could eat anywhere.

Romney said he’d go after the bad guys, whom I could only assume included the fat naked dudes out back. Mitt’s strategy was straightforward—he was going to create a pathway for the Middle East to reject extremism. How? Arab scholars. No one saw that coming. The key was economic development, better education, gender equality, and the rule of law. He seemed very concerned about Mali, though I got the feeling that nobody in the room had any idea where Mali was, let alone what was happening there. I figured Romney chose to mention Mali because nobody normal could tell you anything about it. Touché Mitt.

Not to be sidetracked by Mitt’s clever distraction, Obama brought up his own diversion about how Romney called Russia our biggest threat. In brief, Romney was advocating a foreign policy from the 1980s. He was giving a mixed message that was confusing people, and every single one of his opinions was wrong.

The president wasn’t shying away from the fight, but Romney kept his cool. He said that the president’s attacks weren’t going to explain what he would do about foreign policy, and I agreed with him. He followed this up by saying he didn’t wear rose-colored glasses in regards to Putin and Russia, which I guess was his version of an actual foreign policy. Obama then explained his position: We need to support anti-terrorism and stand with Israel, but we also need to build our nation at home.

The moderator interjected. Syria was sliding into the mouth of hell and dragging Lebanon down with it. Was there a better way to influence events there?

The problem with Syria is that it’s complicated. Geopolitics are a weird. To try and sum up an answer to this question in as short a time as they had couldn’t have been easy, especially considering they had to placate their parties. Obama said there were ways to fix the problem but that Syria had to figure out how to cooperate with Turkey, who they’d recently bombed, and Israel, who they hate with a passion. Assad’s days were numbered, supposedly. But we couldn’t just give the opposition weapons like we did in Libya. Romney was more upbeat, calling Syria “an opportunity.” Syria supported Iran and Hezbollah, and neither one of them supported Israel. We needed effective leadership to make Syria a friend, and if there was one thing Mitt Romney exceled at outside of creating jobs and balancing budgets, it was making friends with hostile Syrians. His first step? Give ‘em guns.

When asked about former Egyptian President Mubarak, Obama said he didn’t regret his stance towards the regime, and then mentioned JFK. That spiked high with the undecided mental cases. He thought Egypt needed to give young women education and abide by Israel.

“Why is that?” said an attractive young lady sitting next to me named Emily.

I couldn’t get into it. Explaining the politics surrounding Israel would take longer than I knew she’d want to hear. It almost makes sense why people just say, “They’ve been fighting for thousands of years…” It’s an easy, go-to response that reveals a lack of understanding. It also let’s you get on to more important questions like: “What’s your name and do you have a boyfriend?” But I didn’t have time for that—I was working.

What was America’s role in the world? Romney had a wonderfully rhetorical answer. Defending human rights, human dignity, free enterprise, peaceful elections, but, most importantly, we need to be strong. We need to strengthen the economy and grow our military. Obama, on the other hand, summed us up in one word: indispensable. I noticed an old lady had fallen asleep in her chair at this point. I envied her wisdom greatly.

Then the two candidates started squabbling over domestic affairs. We’d heard it all before, but here we were again, listening to stuff about oil, clean energy, small businesses, reducing the deficit, taxing the wealthy, not taxing the wealthy, knowing how to build the economy, and knowing how to destroy it. Romney said we weren’t taking advantage of Latin America and then something about time zones and unspecified language opportunities. He really, really, really didn’t want us to become Greece.

“Why don’t they ask them real questions,” Emily asked me. “Why not ask them questions that can’t be summed up with, ‘new jobs’?”

No answer there.

I looked back up to the screen to hear Romney talking about how great fourth graders did in English and math when he was the Governor of Massachusetts, something that apparently was a direct reflection of how bipartisan he was.

But then Obama chimed in, “… that was ten years before you took office.” And the bar broke into applause. The two candidates argued over this point before the moderator broke it up and raised the most fundamental lie Romney’s campaign was running on—where are you going to get the money?

When Paul Ryan was asked a similar question in the vice presidential debate, he stumbled, knowing full well he didn’t have an answer. Romney had a better plan. He took the question right back to the military, and when Scheiffer interrupted and tried to get a straight answer from the governor, Romney said to look at his website and started talking shit about Obamacare. Consider me lazy for not spending the rest of my life trying to glean any meaningful economic ideas off Romney’s website if you want, but in my defense, my calculator is cheap and doesn’t have the proper ideological settings.

Obama pounced. We needed a budget that would help us in the future. We couldn’t give the military money they weren’t asking for, balance tax cuts with unknowns, and take care of American citizens at the same time. We needed to think more about cyber security and space.

“What does he mean by space?” Emily asked me. “Tell me more about space.”

I wish the debate had gone into space. But it turned out Romney wasn’t worried about it. He was too busy talking about how great of a private business guy he was and how our navy was smaller than it was in 1917. At the moment, America was only capable of fighting one war at a time, and this left us vulnerable. I wondered how many wars he wanted to be able to fight simultaneously before being satisfied. Six? Fourteen?

Although it was probably prepared, Obama came back with the best line of the night in response to Mitt’s critique of our shrunken navy. “We also have fewer horses and bayonets,” he said, eliciting loud hoots and howls throughout the Country Club.  Romney sat there smiling and wincing with his eyes, a smug and disingenuous look blanketing his face.

But what about Israel? It seems like every time Israel tells us to do something, we do it. But when we tell them to do something, they think it over and do what they want. We’ve given them a level of protectionism that helps explain why so many people in the Middle East hate us and we’ve facilitated such an intense double standard for them, they’ve been able to turn Palestine into a modern-day apartheid. So what about Israel?

Obama got the first chance to speak. He called them our greatest ally in the region and said he would stand by them if they were attacked by Iran. But the sanctions against Iran were working by crippling their economy. So even though all options were on the table, premature action needed to be curbed. Military intervention should be the last resort, not the first.

Mitt said he’d treat Iranian diplomats as pariahs, just like we did with South African diplomats during the apartheid. From his perspective, “our” enemies had picked up on American weakness. Obama had shown this when he went on his “apology tour” after getting elected, and by allowing daylight (ghast!) to get in between the US and Israel. To Romney, Obama had significantly weakened our position as a global leader.

I looked across the bar. The old lady had woken up. I felt bad for her. The final debate was lacking the novelty of the first debate, the antagonisms of the second debate, and Joe Biden’s laugh from the vice presidential debate. We’d heard it all before. Everyone had grown weary.

Like a proper marriage counselor, Scheiffer brought up whether or not we should divorce Pakistan. Both candidates admitted we’d had a pretty rocky relationship with them. But Romney said, “No,” without hesitation. They had too many nukes and it’d be wrong to walk away. Instead we should do as the President was already doing—bomb them into submission with our drones. Ah, finally, some common ground!

But who was the greatest future threat to our national security? The president said China was both an adversary and a potential partner, depending on whether they followed the rules. I still had no idea what rules they were, though it was pretty clear they had something to do with us having an advantage over them. Romney, who named a nuclear Iran as our greatest threat, agreed that China wasn’t playing by the rules. China was already playing a silent trade war, and they were winning. They were counterfeiting stuff like valves, and that just wasn’t right. Those are our valves, we own them.

I felt bad for Romney. While at Bain, he’d been tasked with making as much money as possible for his investors, and that meant sending jobs overseas. How could he know that years later Obama would use it against him? Poor Mitt.

The closing statements were pretty much a rehashing of everything we’d heard before. Obama said the same standard stuff about asking the wealthy to do a little bit more and how we were in tough times, but we’d bounce back. Romney said the same standard stuff about being the hope of the earth, the torch of freedom, and a slew of mind-numbing unsubstantiated guarantees.

Finally, right around the point I started looking for the ghost of Dr. Kevorkian, the debate came to an end. We decided to walk around and get a feel for whatever everyone had thought of the debate, just in case we’d missed something important. Our first target was the old lady who’d fallen asleep in her chair. She was with a feisty old lady friend, and they didn’t seem to mind talking to a scumbag.

“So ladies, what did you think about the debate?”

 “I thought Obama was very, very strong,” the sleep lady told me. “He was by far better than Romney.”

“Why do you think that?”

The other lady jumped in. “Well, he spoke better and he had his facts, and Romney—I don’t like to use the word lie, but it certainly was the case. Obama controlled his facial expression and how he reacted. I like Joe Biden, but it was a mistake the way he looked at Ryan.”

The sleepy lady agreed. “I believe Obama maintained his dignity.”

One of them was voting in New York, the other in Louisiana, and both of them seemed to know what they were talking about. They had a question for me.

“Who are you writing for?”

“VICE Magazine.”

“Dice?”

“No, V as in Victor.”

“Oh! Bice Magazine! OK! We’ll look for it!”

Expect to see them in an American Apparel near you. I walked back towards Emily and took a sip off my beer.

“You talked to those old ladies?” she asked with intrigue. “What did they say?”

“They were very pro-Obama.”

“Really? My favorite was the lady who kept falling asleep.”

“She was my favorite, too. What did you think about the debate?”

“Solid, predictable debate. I thought that it was the same questions recycled over again for the third time. There was nothing new or interesting presented. It wasn’t challenging in the way I would have liked it to be.”

“Dear God, I know. Do you think there’s any hope for us?”

She raised an eyebrow. “I don’t know, I think there’s so many limitations. It’s presented like it’s this important thing, but the president has a limit on what he can do. There’s a futility to it no matter what.”

You gotta love optimism. I looked around the room and watched people going on and on about politics, agreeing, disagreeing, agreeing to disagree, and disagreeing with agreements. Two words popped in my head—pool party.

Clark and I went outside, stripped down to our skins and jumped into the water. We treaded as we watched recaps of the debate projected onto the side of the building, and every time we got out of the pool a gang of hairy older guys stared at our junk. Much to their chagrin, we weren’t in the mood to get kicked out of the place for fucking them in the hot tub.

It’s funny, there’s something fitting about covering the final debate while laying naked next to a pool. It feels appropriate to nonchalantly mock the absurdity of modern political discourse because modern political discourse is nonchalantly mocking us. With the level of seriousness that comes along with climate change,  exponential population growth, starvation, pollution, nuclear weapons, access to healthcare, inequality, and the rest of it all, we’re all eventually going to have to take a long honest look in the mirror.

After satiating our thirst for chlorine, we got on our bikes and rode home. Along the way I thought about the rules of politics and one of my favorite quotes by Henry David Thoreau.

“Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it.”

Mike Abu

By Mike AbuOctober 23, 2012, 4:00pm