The first debate between Republican Mitt Romney and President Obama boiled down to style versus substance—as both candidates tossed out enough statistics and studies on Wednesday night to leave voters dizzy with confusion.Entering the showdown at the University of Denver as the underdog, Romney clearly triumphed on style. He distilled his argument for resurrecting the economy into crisp, easy-to-follow statements that landed some hard jabs on Obama who appeared less sure footed in the high stakes encounter.
“The president has a view very similar to the one he had when he ran for office four years ago, that spending more, taxing more, regulating more - if you will, trickle-down government - would work,” Romney said.
The former Massachusetts governor came across as sharp and forceful, while Obama buried his arguments in awkward pauses and a passively aloof manner of speaking. The popular blogger Andrew Sullivan summarized the showdown in a mid-debate tweet: “This is a rolling calamity for Obama. He's boring, abstract, and less human-seeming than Romney!”
But despite Romney’s smooth delivery, it was almost impossible to know exactly how he would reduce income tax rates, raise military spending, reduce the deficit, and simultaneously generate millions of new jobs.
He appeared to abandon the promise to reduce all income tax rates by 20 percent, even as he claimed the lower rates would free up cash for small businesses to hire more workers and electrify an economy that’s been running on low battery power for the better part of four years.
Romney once again declined to outline which income tax deductions and loopholes he would eliminate to offset the $5 trillion in revenue lost under his tax reduction plan.
“The problem is he’s been asked over a hundred times how you would close those deductions and loopholes and he hasn’t identified them,” Obama said.
The absence of details led to a Tax Policy Center analysis this summer predicting that Romney’s proposal must raise taxes on the middle class—while slashing them for the wealthy—in order to prevent a deficit that has topped $1 trillion for the past four years from soaring even higher.
But Obama posed his questions about Romney’s vague and inconsistent budget proposals to the voters watching at home, instead of hammering the man standing a couple feet away from him on whether his math was nothing more than hocus pocus. The president shied away from a fight, letting the Republican nominee off the hook.
“I won’t put in a tax cut that will add to the deficit. I will not reduce the share paid by high income individuals,” Romney promised last night at the first of three presidential debates scheduled before the Nov. 6 election. “My plan is not like anything that’s been tried before,” he said in response to Obama’s critique that he was just rehashing President George W. Bush’s policies. But the statement unintentionally reflected how little anyone other than Romney knows about its actual contents.
Romney said he had simple criteria for determining which spending to cut: Is a given government program worth borrowing from China? That means no more subsides for PBS, a favorite GOP target but hardly the cause of the deficit. “I love Big Bird,” Romney told moderator Jim Lehrer, who hosts the NewsHour on PBS. “But I’m not going to keep spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it.”
Both candidates agreed on the basic principles of ramping up domestic energy production, improving American schools and cutting corporate tax rates, even if they had slightly different approaches. For example, Obama noted that he would remove incentives for companies to move factories overseas, elements of the tax code that Romney—with his 25 years in business and background in private equity—claimed he did not know existed.