Romney won. I don’t really see how anyone watching the debate could conclude otherwise.
Immediately following the debate, Rachel Maddow said that the first casualty was the format. Boy, was that true. Jim Lehrer had this nifty idea: there would be six fifteen minute segments on domestic policy, with each candidate speaking for two minutes, then allowed to engage with each other’s answers. It was going to be neat and polite and fact driven and we would all be enlightened.
None of that happened. Instead, Governor Romney used that ‘response’ opportunity to aggressively advance what was clearly his debate agenda. He was consistently on, pounding the President for his ‘failures’ of policy, and correcting the President’s talking points. Jim Lehrer would sort of plaintively try to hold them to the rules. But hey, one of these guys is going to be leader of the free world. I like Jim Lehrer, but come on.
It was really remarkable. President Obama seemed detached, distant, like he was enduring the debate, rather than really engaging in it. Romney took over. He didn’t seem obnoxious; he was pleasant, and respectful, but he was very strong.
The two minute thing kind of disappeared. The time limits were essentially ignored. They were mostly ignored by Romney, who clearly decided he was just going to say what he wanted to say, and to heck with time limits. Honestly, I kind of thought President Obama was being . . . polite. Oh, that’s the format? Okay. Gosh, it sort of feels like my two minutes is up. Okay, I’ll stop talking. Meanwhile Romney understood something basic; you don’t get points for following the rules. The objective is to win an election.
I was shocked to see afterwards that Obama actually talked longer, by three minutes apparently. What I remember is Romney taking ownership over the questions. Obama’s answers were probably a little longer, but meandering, not to the point.
Now, the fact is, Romney got away with a number of astonishing whoppers. I kept saying to myself ‘okay, that’s not true, that’s not true, that’s not true.’ One big one was when Romney said the private sector provides health care more efficiently and effectively than government ever could. That’s conservative ideology, but it’s not even close to true; Medicare provides the most efficient health care anywhere, and it’s not close: less than 2% of Medicare costs cover overhead, while most private insurance companies have overhead between 15 to 20%. But nobody (especially the President) called him on any of it.
I think President Obama was all prepared to go after Romney on his 5 trillion dollar tax cut. That tax cut is essentially the only specific Romney has offered in his entire economic plan. Of course, Governor Romney is planning a massive tax cut, focused on upper income tax payers. He’s been running on that for months.
So when Romney just flat out denied that he favored, or that he had ever proposed that tax cut, a tax cut that is basically his entire economic program, well, I don’t think Obama knew how to respond. I think he was just sort of flummoxed. Is it fair to say that Governor Romney lied? Well, sort of. I’m sure there’s some sense in which the Governor probably sort of believes that his tax cut isn’t really a tax cut, or that it’s somehow budget neutral, that there are loopholes that can be cut that will off-set the tax cuts. None of that’s true, really. But Romney sounded and seemed and acted completely confident. He came across as a little affronted, in fact, that his positions had been so badly misrepresented. He seemed reasonable, compassionate and energized.
Watching the spin afterwards, two things struck me. First, the MSNBC hosts seemed seriously pissed at their candidate. Chris Matthews was frothing at the mouth, he was so angry. He kept saying, in essence, ‘we’re tired, over here, of carrying you on our backs. We’re furious that you did not stand up for Democratic ideals. You kept looking down, you kept staring at the floor. Romney was in your grille. Fight, damnit!’ The best the Democratic spinners could do was to say, ‘well, the President has always had a kind of dignified reserve.’ While Romney looked like a guy who really wanted to become President.
Here’s what I think, though. Romney’s economic proposals are . . . well, who knows what his economic plans actually are? When he first began his campaign, he put out something called Believe in America: Mitt Romney’s Plan for Jobs and Economic Growth. It was an Amazon e-book; I bought it and read it. Vague and general and non-specific as it was, there were enough details to see that . . . he had no viable economic plan. His ‘plan’ consisted of goals; increase jobs by five million! Yay! Doesn’t matter; that book’s mostly been forgotten now. He made Paul Ryan his vice-Presidential candidate, and Ryan has been quite specific; he put out a budget plan, anyway, presented it to the House. That’s been forgotten too. Romney now has been talking about his tax cut, cutting the top tax rate to 25%, paying for it by closing loopholes (unspecified). Now, suddenly, in a Presidential debate, the tax cut apparently disappeared. “Tax cut? We don’t need no stinkin’ tax cut!” Or, it’s not really a tax cut per se: it’s revenue neutral.
As my wife points out, if the Romney tax cut really is revenue neutral, if the same amount of revenue comes in from the same sources, then why bother with it? What’s the point? The tax cut is supposed to foster economic growth; so if there isn’t actually a tax cut . . . Listen carefully to Romney’s comments in the debate, and you’ll realize there’s still a tax cut, and it’s still mostly for the rich, but he slyly avoids the point by saying ‘it’s revenue neutral when you factor in economic growth.’ So President Obama actually was right when he said Romney proposes an unfunded five trillion dollar tax cut. Romney obfuscated that point so adroitly, though, it’s the President who ended up looking bad.
Another big one was the 718 dollars from Medicare. Romney kept hitting that number, and probably even created the impression that Obama had stolen 700 billion to fund his awful terrible Obamacare bill. This is all silly. That exact same 718 billion was in Paul Ryan’s budget. Closing Medicare Advantage is something everyone of both side of the aisle agree on, Ryan included. But again, Romney looked sort of outraged about it, and Obama defended himself weakly.
This all supports the charge of cynicism. What does Romney really believe, what does he really stand for, what policies would he really support? But I think Romney doesn’t care. In some respects, he reminds me of President Bush, but not Bush 43, Bush 41, the first President Bush, George H. W. Remember “read my lips, no new taxes?” That’s just something you have to say when you run as a Republican. But there’s no reason anyone should hold you to it; nobody should confuse the empty rhetoric used when campaigning with the actual job of governing. The point is to win, and then the point is to govern. There’s no such thing as a political ‘lie.’ There are just talking points and spin, unpleasant necessities both. Bush 43 was much more of a conservative ideologue than his father was, I think.
I do think we saw the real Romney in this debate. He’s a conservative, pretty much, kind of. He wants lower taxes, smaller government, and he wants states to handle things like education and health care, sort of, maybe. What exactly would he do as President? He’s a CEO. Details aren’t his responsibility. You delegate policy specifics. Because he’s running for President, people want to see an economic plan, they want to see a foreign policy plan, but there’s no reason he needs to commit himself to anything. You say what you have to say and then once you’ve won, you’re able to govern. Running for President is a lot like applying for a job as a CEO. When you apply for a CEO’s job, you have things you have to say, you want to ‘increase shareholder value.’ But you don’t apply for a job by saying “I’d fire Jim and Bob and Mike and I’d move Peggy to head up Accounts Receivable.” Get the job, then do the job.
Well, last night, Mitt Romney went a long way towards getting the job. His performance was astoundingly, shockingly cynical but it worked. I take my hat off. If Barack Obama wants a second term, he’s going to have to get tougher, and he’s going to have to fight for it. He looked like a football coach with a lead, running out the clock, playing prevent defense. Well, we just learned how good the other team’s quarterback is.