Close Read: NPR Reporters Examine Second Debate

A team of NPR correspondents joins Renee Montagne to give Tuesday night's presidential debate a Close Read. The second meeting was a town hall-style debate and covered a wide range of issues. The reporters include: John Ydstie, Julie Rovner, Michele Kelemen, Jeff Brady and Ted Robbins.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

When Barack Obama and Mitt Romney met in last night's town-hall-style debate, they could have been in a ring as they duked it out right from the beginning. It was a far more pugilistic president who showed up for this second debate, held at Hofstra University on Long Island. The two men challenged each other on their records and their promises. And we've gathered a team of NPR correspondents for a close read of what they said.

They often sparred over the economy. And early in the evening, high gas prices led to this back and forth on energy.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

MITT ROMNEY: In the last four years, you cut permits and licenses on federal land and federal waters in half.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Not true, Governor Romney.

ROMNEY: So how much did you cut 'em by?

OBAMA: Not true.

ROMNEY: By how much did you cut them by then?

OBAMA: Governor, we have actually produced more oil on...

ROMNEY: No. No. How much did you cut, licenses and permits, on federal land and federal waters?

MONTAGNE: Jeff Brady, you cover energy here at NPR and that last little exchange was suggestive of how energetic last night's debate was.

Look, the president is saying he did not cut permits to drill for oil on federal land. Mitt Romney's saying he did. What's the deal?

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Well, let's talk about oil specifically. Governor Romney mentioned that production on federal land and offshore was down 14 percent last year. But there's more to that statistic. Much of the federal oil production comes from the Gulf of Mexico. And you'll remember that in 2010 there was the Deepwater Horizon accident and oil spill. The administration put a moratorium in place while the government overhauled regulations. And that's where much of the production decline comes from.

Now, at the same time, oil companies started focusing drilling in some other places, like North Dakota, where newer technologies are making previously inaccessible oil accessible. Much of that drilling is happening on private land. So overall domestic oil production is actually up since just before President Obama came into office.

MONTAGNE: And Jeff, Governor Romney pointed out that gasoline was much cheaper when Mr. Obama was running for president, under $2 a gallon. Now it's approaching in most places $4 a gallon. Does a president, in fact, control gas prices?

BRADY: Not really. Gas prices were so cheap in 2008 because the economy had pretty much collapsed and so did demand for oil and gas. The economy has improved, prices are back up. A president can have some effect. If the president said tomorrow he's going to release a whole bunch of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, that would send prices down.

But what's really affecting world prices is world demand. So unless a president can convince places like China and India to use less oil, then he doesn't have a lot of control over prices.

MONTAGNE: And Mitt Romney also said he'd help the economy by bringing tax rates down, as well as eliminating deductions and credits.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

ROMNEY: I'm not looking to cut taxes for wealthy people. I am looking to cut taxes for middle income people.

MONTAGNE: Our economics correspondent John Ydstie joins us now. President Obama took issue, saying Romney's tax cut would be most beneficial to rich and hurt the middle class. Who's right?

JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: Well, Renee, the problem is that Governor Romney wants to do a lot of things with his tax plan. He wants to give the middle class a tax break, but he would cut everyone's rate by 20 percent, including for the wealthiest Americans. The total cost would be $5 trillion over 10 years. Governor Romney says he'll pay for it by cutting deductions. But analysis of his plan suggests the numbers don't add up and that the middle class could end up paying more.

MONTAGNE: And John, the topic of outsourcing came up in this debate. Mr. Obama attacked Governor Romney over his investments in China.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

OBAMA: When he talks about getting tough on China, keep in mind that Governor Romney invested in companies that were pioneers of outsourcing to China.

MONTAGNE: And Governor Romney defended himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

ROMNEY: Mr. President, have you looked at your pension?

OBAMA: You know, I don't look at my pension. It's not as big as yours so it doesn't take as long.

ROMNEY: Well, let me give you some...

OBAMA: I don't check it that often.

ROMNEY: Let me give you some advice. Look at your pension. You also have investments in Chinese companies.

YDSTIE: Well, the president has made the same outsourcing charge in some of his ads and it's really not fair. Bain Capital did invest in some companies that were pioneers in outsourcing, but Mitt Romney was not managing Bain at the time, though he still profited from the investments as a shareholder. And as we heard, Romney suggested that, you know, anyone who owns a broad portfolio of stocks or a mutual fund, like the S&P 500, is profiting from some company that has shipped jobs overseas.

MONTAGNE: A question from one of the audience members about equality in the workplace led to a discussion of women's health issues. Governor Romney had this to say about employers and contraception.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

ROMNEY: I don't believe that bureaucrats in Washington should tell someone whether they can use contraceptives or not. And I don't believe employers should tell someone whether they could have contraceptive care or not. Every woman in American should have access to contraceptives.

MONTAGNE: Health policy correspondent Julie Rovner, let me put this one to you. This seems to be different from what the governor has said on other occasions.

JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Well, he's trying to have it both ways here. The question is not whether every woman in American can have access to contraceptives. Obviously they are available and legal. The question is who's going to pay for it. The federal health law requires most employers to include contraception as part of a basic benefits package. Churches are exempt from that mandate, but not religious hospitals or universities or others who employ people of many different faiths.

Back last March, the Senate was voting on an amendment to allow employers the right to deny coverage of any health benefit, not just contraception, to which they had a moral objection. Governor Romney at the time said he would oppose it, then he quickly changed his position to support it. So he's trying to parse things here. Yes, he believes contraception should be legal, but not necessarily covered by health insurance if employers don't want to.

MONTAGNE: Now, most of the debate last night was about domestic policy, but it did turn briefly to foreign policy, and moderator Candy Crowley did some live fact checking, actually. President Obama, in explaining his response to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi said he stood in the Rose Garden the next day and told the American people that this was an act of terror. Mitt Romney challenged him, saying the Obama administration initially kept talking about the attack as a protest gone awry.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

ROMNEY: I want to make sure we get that for the record because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.

OBAMA: Get the transcript.

CANDY CROWLEY: He did, in fact, sir. So let me - call it an act of terror.

OBAMA: Can you say that a little louder, Candy?

MONTAGNE: We're joined now by NPR's diplomatic correspondent, Michele Kelemen. Did he or didn't he?

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Well, go back and look at the transcript. He did, in fact, use the word terror in his Rose Garden statement the morning after the attack. It was toward the end of the statement. He was talking much more broadly about American people willing to stand up for freedom around the world and he said, quote, "no acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation."

It's also true that days after that his ambassador to the United Nations was on many Sunday talk shows saying that the early report said that this was a protest against an anti-Islam video. Mitt Romney suggested that the Obama administration may have been misleading Americans by downplaying the terrorist threats, and President Obama said that suggestion that anyone on his team would play politics when four Americans were killed is offensive.

MONTAGNE: Finally, let's get to another of the topics that came up last night - immigration. Here's Mitt Romney.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

ROMNEY: He said in his first year he'd put out an immigration plan that would deal with our immigration challenges. Didn't even file it.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Ted Robbins is also with us from Arizona. And Ted, is that true?

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: It is true. Then-candidate Obama said that he was going to introduce it. He didn't. A couple of weeks ago on Univision he was interviewed and said that the reason he didn't was because that once he got into office, he realized the economy was in such terrible shape that that had to be his first priority. But Governor Romney is correct in the promise. It was broken by President Obama and now Governor Romney is making that same promise.

MONTAGNE: President Obama challenged Mitt Romney on his plans for immigration reform, saying that he has supported Arizona's very tough immigration enforcement law. What's the case there?

ROBBINS: The law, known as SB-1070, is the one called Show Me Your Papers, where local law enforcement has to question the immigration status of people that they stop. Governor Romney has not said really one way or the other whether he supports or does not support SB-1070. He has said that states have a right and a duty to protect their borders, and his immigration advisor is one of the co-authors of SB-1070. But he has not officially come out in favor of it.

MONTAGNE: And we've been getting a close read on some of what was said in last night's second presidential debate in Hempstead, New York. We've been joined by NPR's Ted Robbins in Arizona, NPR's Jeff Brady in Philadelphia, and in our studio in Washington D.C., John Ydstie, Michele Kelemen and Julie Rovner. Thank you all very much.

ROBBINS: You're welcome.

BRADY: You're welcome.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

ROVNER: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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