The second presidential debate was held Tuesday night at Hofstra University in Hempstead, Long Island. The moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley, chose questions that were submitted in advance by the rather small audience, all of whom were undecided voters.
According to the CNN poll conducted immediately after the debate, 73 percent of respondents thought the president did significantly better than in the first one. Given that his performance in the first debate was widely acknowledged to have been a disaster, with Daily Beast uber blogger Andrew Sullivan predicting it would lose Obama the election, a cynic might say that the president had nowhere to go but up the second time around.
But it was clear that the old Obama was back – engaged, knowledgable, articulate, empathetic. And he was far more aggressive this time, not hesitating to call Romney out when he lied. But perhaps the best moment came when Candy Crowley interrupted an argument between the two candidates and confirmed that the president had, indeed, called the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi an act of terror the day after it happened – that Obama had not, as Romney claimed, waited two weeks to label the attack terrorism. U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens was killed in the consulate attack.
Besides the reference to Libya, there were no foreign policy questions. Americans tend to be uninterested in the subject, so the failure of this typically middle class, suburban audience to evidence more interest in issues beyond their borders is perhaps not that surprising. But in this case, half the questions were asked by Jews. Their names sounded, I tweeted, like my bat mitzvah guest list: Jeremy Epstein, Susan Katz, Carol Goldberg, Barry Green.
But none of these middle class Long Island Jews asked a question about Israel. They were interested in jobs, economic policy and how the two candidates perceived themselves. From the way they phrased their questions, it seemed pretty clear that they had voted for Obama in 2008 and were now primarily concerned about the same issues that preoccupy most middle class Americans – how to pay the bills, how to save for the future and how to make sure their kids find a job after college.
Last week, the vice presidential candidates argued during their debate about who was closer to the prime minister of Israel. They called Netanyahu by his nickname, “Bibi,” to indicate that they were friends of Israel’s prime minister. These men believed that being perceived as a friend of Bibi’s would lend them credibility with their constituents. Otherwise, they would not have wasted precious time boasting and competing over the matter.
Then along come four typical suburban middle class American Jewish voters and – voilà! – they do not ask about Israel.
This is the ongoing enigma of U.S. domestic politics, where Israel is an issue of critical, primary importance to the politicians, while their Jewish constituents base their votes on the same issue as their non-Jewish fellow citizens – jobs, taxes, income and education.
In case you missed it, click here to read the transcript of the debate and watch the whole thing on video.