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Why Didn’t Obama Mention the ‘47 Percent’ Last Night?

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during the Presidential Debate at the University of Denver on October 3, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. The first of four debates for the 2012 Election, three Presidential and one Vice Presidential, is moderated by PBS's Jim Lehrer and focuses on domestic issues: the economy, health care, and the role of government.
Saving this one for a rainy day? Photo: Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images

For weeks now, the Obama campaign has been hammering Mitt Romney on his secretly recorded remarks disparaging the “47 percent” of Americans who pay no federal income taxes because they are too old to or too poor and hate the American way of life. So damning does Team Obama consider the video that it has released ads consisting of almost nothing but Romney’s words juxtaposed with images of hard-workin’ ‘Mericans. And yet, during last night’s debate on domestic policy, President Obama brought up the video a grand total of zero times.

Why? In the spin room after the debate, Obama’s campaign elders claimed that there was no particular reason — just didn’t happen.

Afterward, Obama aides claimed it was no big deal. “It just didn’t come up in the course of the conversation,” said [campaign manager Jim] Messina. “We continue to believe that this is a very clear difference and Governor Romney is trying to run away from the comment.  It just didn’t come up.”

There are a lot of things that come up in a debate, and some that don’t,” said [senior adviser David] Plouffe.  “Obviously those remarks have been a big part of the campaign.  We’re advertising on them.  Our focus was an American electorate focused on how do we move forward.”

Just didn’t come up”? Things come up when you bring them up. They don’t just hang there, like a piece of fruit, waiting to be plucked. Sure, moderator Jim Lehrer didn’t ask a direct question about the 47 percent video, but Obama had numerous opportunities to work it into the conversation during the hour or so dedicated to taxes, entitlements, and the role of government, any of which would have served as a perfectly appropriate jumping-off point. 

An even more nonsensical explanation was offered by Maryland’s Democratic governor Martin O’Malley, who claimed that Obama didn’t bring up the 47 percent clip because “he’s a gentleman.” And … what? “Gentlemen” don’t point out unflattering things about their opponents during presidential debates? Why was it gentlemanly to call out Romney for his tax plan, his Medicare plan, and his (lack of a) health-care plan? What does that mean?

Set aside the implausible explanations offered by aides and surrogates — what is the real explanation? The first is that Obama simply messed up. He was clearly off his game all night. He seemed distracted, unfocused. Maybe he just got sidetracked.

The other possibility is that Obama purposely avoided the topic (for some reason other than his gentlemanliness). The Times’ Carl Hulse wondered on Twitter whether, perhaps, Obama didn’t want to give Romney the opportunity to defend the unpopular remarks. There is a certain logic to this, we guess. If Romney managed to spin the “47 percent” incident in his favor, in front of an audience of 50 or 60 million people, it could have, potentially, taken the wind out of the entire ad campaign. We don’t find this very persuasive, but then again, none of the other explanations are very persuasive either.

Why Didn’t Obama Mention ‘47 Percent’ in Debate?