President Obama’s Bayonets Draw Tweets, Not Blood

Plus: Bob Schieffer stays where a moderator belongs: out of the news.

If the first presidential debate was a Romney KO and the second, Obama by unanimous decision, last night’s rubber match had to be scored as Obama, by a zinger.

In terms of withering one-liners, it was incontestably the President’s night. With the timing of a seasoned standup, he put down his Republican opponent at will, always careful not to draw blood. If nothing else, it brought great entertainment value to an otherwise predictable 90 minutes.

When Romney charged that the U.S. Navy had fewer ships than at any time since 1916, Obama deadpanned: “Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go under water, nuclear submarines.”

Two snaps, Mister President!

As the audience at Lynn University in Boca Raton, faithfully observed what moderator Bob Schieffer had earlier described as a “vow of silence,” Democrats practically began speaking in tongues. It triggered the debate’s peak Twitter moment, with 105,767 tweets per minute.

At another point, the President put Romney in his place by reminding him who has been the Leader of the Free World for the past four years. “I know you haven’t been in a position to actually execute foreign policy, but every time you’ve offered an opinion, you’ve been wrong.”

When Obama pointed out that Romney had recently labeled Russia, not the Middle East, as the greatest threat to America, he followed it with: “The 1980s called. They want their foreign policy back.”

It was almost enough to make viewers glued to Monday Night Football or Game 7 of the National League Championship Series switch over to Obama-Romney III. Or not. Politics is a different kind of contact sport. In the final analysis, Obama-Romney III may not move the needle much for either candidate. Voters have notoriously short memories, and there are two long weeks before Election Day.

This much, however, is beyond debate: Unlike in the first two presidentials, as well as in the vice presidential, the moderator didn’t make news. In this election cycle, that, in itself, is news. CBS’s Bob Schieffer, who has covered every U.S. president since Jefferson, asked mostly pointed questions, then got out of the way.

He also played traffic cop when he had to, pushing the candidates to stay on topic (foreign affairs) instead of reverting to talking points (jobs). He was not always successful, but his physical proximity to the principals improved his odds. Unlike PBS’s Jim Lehrer and CNN’s Candy Crowley, Schieffer sat across a table from the candidates.

It wasn’t the only winning moment for Schieffer, 75, whose good ol’ boy Texas demeanor belies the heart of a battle-hardened survivor.

In the endless pre-debate hype last night, Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly said to Bernie Goldberg, presumably as a joke: “If Schieffer doesn’t ask about Libya, he has to retire tomorrow.”

As fate would have it, Libya was Schieffer’s first question. Does that mean O’Reilly has to retire? Better yet, how about Bernie Goldberg? That, I suppose, will have to wait for a future debate.