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 program so critical it's worth borrowing from China to pay for it? 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.
The exchange crystallized just how inert Obama seemed to be, since it’s no secret that Romney has overseas accounts to lower his personal tax burdens—the kind of class distinction that’s hurt his favorability with voters.
Even more surprising, Obama didn’t attack or even reference Romney’s controversial statement in a leaked video that 47 percent of the country sees themselves as “victims” who don’t pay taxes and willfully depend on the government.
Instead, he painted Romney as potentially damaging what progress has been made under his administration with half-baked plans to overhaul government finances, dismantling health care reform, scrapping the Wall Street regulations from Dodd-Frank, and revamping Medicaid and Medicare.
“He says that he’s going to replace Dodd-Frank Wall Street reforms but we don’t know exactly which ones, he won’t tell us,” Obama said. “He now says he will replace Obamacare and assures that all the good things in it will be in there and you don’t have to worry. And at some point, the American people have to ask themselves is the reason Gov. Romney is keeping all these plans secret because they’re too good?”
Romney replied that the problem with Obama is that he never achieved any real bipartisanship in Washington and pushed through unpopular reforms while ignoring the most urgent problems including joblessness. “My experience as a governor is that if I come in and lay down a piece of legislation and say, it’s ‘my way or the highway,’ I don’t get a lot done,” he said.
In the discussion of entitlements, the president may have stumbled badly and hurt himself with seniors when he said he suspects that he and Romney have “a somewhat similar position” on Social Security reform. “Social Security is structurally sound,” Obama said, adding it would need to be “tweaked” as it was during the 1980s by President Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill.
Until now, Obama has said he is committed to protecting and strengthening Social Security for future generations and would not accept reforms that slash benefits for future generations or partially privatize the system. To sustain the retirement program, Romney has advocated raising the retirement age for future generations and means testing benefits for higher income retirees.
As long as he was on the offensive, Romney didn’t feel the need to mount a full-throated defense of his own proposals.
On Obama’s Affordable Care Act, Romney said it would contribute to “the prohibitive cost of health care” instead of controlling the expenses. Claiming the measure would stop small businesses from expanding, he noted it would be more expensive than traditional insurance and be governed by an unelected board.
“I just don’t know how the president could have come into office,” Romney said, “and spend his energy and passion for two years fighting for Obamacare instead of fighting for jobs for the American people. It has killed jobs.”
The president countered with a long, rambling defense of his health care plan, saying the rationale ultimately came from how medical expenses were driving the deficit and making basic coverage unaffordable for millions of families.
“The irony is that we have seen this model work really well – in Massachusetts – because Gov. Romney did a good thing, working with Democrats in the state to set up what essentially is the identical model,” Obama said in an attempt to score some points.
But Romney turned the tables to make the issue about bi-partisanship—a key weakness for Obama because gridlock with the Republican majority in the House over the past two years has thwarted passage of additional stimulus measures.
“I like the fact that in my state we had Republicans and Democrats come together and work together,” Romney said. “What you did instead was to push through a plan without a single Republican vote . . . Instead of bringing America together and having a discussion on this important topic you pushed through something that you and [House Democratic leader] Nancy Pelosi and [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid thought was the best answer and drove it through.”