Someone shook the Etch-a-Sketch, and Mitt Romney 1.0 showed up at last night’s debate. After years of running away from his time as Massachusetts governor, he re-embraced his home state. He bragged about its #1 ranking in education and said Romneycare (though he didn’t name it as such) would be a good model for the nation, on a state-by-state basis. He promised to protect individuals with pre-existing medical conditions and young people needing to stay on their parents’ insurance. He said the market needs regulation! He projected reasonable and, yes, presidential. And President Obama just mailed it in.
Incumbents frequently don’t do well in their first reelection debates, but President Obama’s somnambulant, rope-a-dope performance may have been the weakest since Ronald Reagan got his clock cleaned by Walter Mondale in 1984.
Romney made many statements that could theoretically reassure those turned off by his primary campaign “severe conservatism,” and Obama never effectively challenged Romney’s assertions, contradictions or distorted “facts.” “I will not reduce the share of taxes paid by higher income Americans.” “I won’t add to the taxes of middle income families.” “My plan is not like anything tried before.” “I’m not going to cut education.” “I will pass no tax cut that adds to the deficit.” He offered a path to, as one commentator put it, “painless prosperity.”
And, despite the President’s professorial approach, it didn’t seem he could lay a hand on Romney’s non-fact-based, often bewildering assertions.
Despite occasional flashes of the President’s warm smile, I agree with those who said he looked like a man who didn’t want to be there! One caller to C-Span lamented, “I miss Obama. I don’t know where he went!” Romney was fully engaged, well prepared and aggressive without being offensive. CNN’s post-debate poll had two thirds of those watching, even Obama supporters, saying Romney had won debate #1.
We still haven’t learned Romney’s specific ideas for loopholes and exemptions to be eliminated. He says he’s sticking with principles, and implied the specifics have to be negotiated with lawmakers. He’d repeal Dodd-Frank, including the too-big-to-fail provisions, but said nothing about what he’d put in its place, if anything. I was unpersuaded about the flawed arithmetic underlying his protestations. Obama’s leaving unanswered Romney’s false claims and misleading charges was poor strategy. Obama will have to remedy that in the next debate, but the town hall forum format may not lend itself to to the kinds of corrections Obama needs to make. The next debates will also likely not have the viewership of last night’s encounter.
The debate had a tone of civility altogether missing in today’s political environment, but the need for civility doesn’t mean the President shouldn’t have mentioned Romney’s 47 % attitude, his outsourcing jobs as CEO of Bain, his overseas bank accounts. Democrats don’t need unilateral disarmament!
You can count on one hand the presidential election outcomes changed by debates. (Think Kennedy-Nixon or Bush-Gore.) John Kerry won all his debates against George W., but we never got to say President Kerry. After last night, Romney is definitely back in the game. In this year’s now margin-of-error battleground-states contest, it will probably be days before we see what the real damage, if any, from the President’s sub-par performance will be.
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