The first presidential debate opened with a stark contrast: A blue tie on President Barack Obama and a red tie on Gov. Mitt Romney.
In his opening statement President Obama offered a new phrase for shopworn tax and spend policies, calling that “economic patriotism.” Gov. Romney opened with his five-point plan to get the American economy on the path to recovery. The president’s plan is a call for more government spending, at a time when the nation is racking up massive, record deficits under his watch. Romney’s call is to unleash the private sector through domestic energy production and tax policy.
In an early moment of incoherence, President Obama called for cutting the deficit while also increasing government “investment” in his green energy initiatives. How does one cut government spending while increasing government spending?
Gov. Romney also caught the president telling a story about energy production. The president entered office having made a promise to “bankrupt” the coal industry to force America onto a greener path. Energy prices have risen sharply. President Obama tried to take credit for the oil boom that has been occurring over the past couple of years, but Gov. Romney reminded him that all of that increase in production is happening on privately owned land. The Obama administration has pushed against and closed down production on federal lands.
By about the 15 minute mark, President Obama appeared to be annoyed. That came after an exchange in which Gov. Romney interrupted moderator Jim Lehrer to deconstruct a misleading Obama charge that Romney plans to raise taxes on the middle class and cut taxes on the rich.
Gov. Romney consistently delivered piles of facts, combined with stories about American workers and businesses that put flesh on those facts. It was an extremely effective strategy, showing Romney as the detail wonk who cares and who understands the connection between Washington policy and Main Street reality. Obama’s response was to drag Donald Trump into a discussion of small businesses. It flopped.
At the 25 minute mark, Romney stated that it’s not moral for the current generation to continue spending money we do not have, which will have to be paid back by future generations. That argument counters the moral argument that Obama and the left consistently make, that it is moral to force wealthier Americans to pay more in taxes than they already do. Wealthy Americans already pay far more than their share; the moral weight has to go to Romney on this argument.
At the 30 minute mark, moderator Jim Lehrer abandoned his designated role and coached President Obama to explain his belief that in order to close the deficit, you have to cut spending and raise revenue. This happened after Romney used Obama’s own 2010 vintage argument for maintaining current tax rates instead of letting Bush-era tax cuts expire. Lehrer offered Obama what amounted to a lifeline. A pattern soon developed: The president would pick out an unpopular figure and bash them to argue for more taxes. The first time, he used Donald Trump. The second, he bashed Exxon-Mobil.
If it’s possible to be too informed, then Romney suffered from that ailment. At times the governor overwhelmed his opponent with facts, statistics, past and present, while the split screen captured Obama looking down, smirking, occasionally nodding and jotting something down. After Obama bashed the oil industry and its alleged tax breaks, Romney pointed out that Obama’s own tax breaks to green industry in just three years amounted to about 90 years’ worth of the breaks for oil companies. A second pattern emerged during this exchange: Romney discussed business like a business man who understands policy, while Obama discussed business like an enemy whose existence he tolerates because he has to.
Obama’s strongest moments came during the discussion of Medicare. He charged that Gov. Romney supports a future voucher program (so does Obama, or he did at one point, but that didn’t come up). Romney fired back that the president has already taken $716 billion out of Medicare to fund ObamaCare, which is true. Romney promoted competition to bring costs down; Obama stuck to touting government as the most cost-effective solution to senior citizens’ health care. Romney ultimately won the segment on the facts, but Obama came across as more confident in his arguments here than he had at any point previously in the debate. A tweet rolled across around this point, showing Romney outperforming Obama in Topsy, a measure of social response, by about 70 or 80 points, or about ten percent of the measure.
The candidates sparred over the massive Dodd-Frank banking regulation, which Obama signed into law. Romney charged that it walls off five banks as “too big to fail” and is hurting local and regional banks. Obama charged that Romney supports no regulation, which is absurd.
At the 55 minute mark, Romney landed a serious body blow when he noted that as a candidate, Obama had promised that through health care reform he would bring insurance premiums down by about $2500 per family. The reality has been that since ObamaCare’s passage in 2010, premiums have increased by an average of about $2500 per family. Romney also argued that ObamaCare has killed jobs (a majority of small business owners agree with him) and that it should be repealed to allow the states to come up with their own solutions. Obama responded with anecdotes: pre-existing conditions, evil insurance companies imposing “arbitrary” limits, and the like. Just before the hour mark, Lehrer attempted to stop a long Obama answer, and Obama snapped that he still had five seconds on the clock before taking about a minute to finish his answer. Romney capped the health care debate by noting that in Massachusetts, he, a Republican, worked with the Democrats to craft a reform. Obama, said Romney, worked solely with Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats. That plan raised taxes and cut Medicare and never earned a single Republican vote. During this exchange, Dennis Miller tweeted: “The night janitor at Big Ben doesn’t clean a clock as well as Romney does.” Obama got off to a decent reply about congressional Republicans not cooperating with him, but then wandered off into the land of uncertain “uhs.”
“Free people and free enterprise are more effective at reducing costs than government will ever be.” Gov. Romney said this, in regard to health care and the unelected Independent Payment Advisory Board that ObamaCare creates to oversee the plan’s implementation, at about six minutes past the hour mark. That thought is one that President Obama could never honestly utter. A tweet rolled by: “Romney is opening up Obama on IPAB like a boiled peanut.” Another noted that Obama’s open derision was unbecoming for him. The president struck me as frustrated with Romney and with the structure of the debate. When Romney violated the debate’s time limits, which he did routinely, he seemed eager to answer and get to the next fact. Obama seemed touchy and constrained. Romney had struck him for wasting two years while the American economy foundered, on ObamaCare, which hurt job creation. That took some of the wind out of the president. In football terms, it had the effect of the trailing team driving across the 50 yard line, only to throw an interception that turned into a pick six.
With 15 minutes left on the clock, Mitt Romney outlined his principles: based on the Constitution, with a strong military and a strong economy, empowering individuals and caring for the hurting. Romney projected optimism, caring, openness and a connection to the factual real world in that moment, a moment that may have changed the race and put him on a trajectory to become president of the United States. He closed that segment with another strike on Obama’s “trickle-down government” philosophy: “We know that the path we are on is not working, it’s time for a new path.” On the president’s green energy “investments,” Romney charged that “You don’t just pick winners and losers, you pick the losers.” Obama never appeared to realize that for every single problem, he proposes government as the answer. A majority of American voters consistently view government as less a solution than the problem itself.
By this point, Obama had spoken for about 10% more than Romney had, yet had stayed in the world of anecdotes and away from hard facts and statistics. Romney had pummeled the president with a barrage of facts. His energy gone, the president struggled even to explain his education policies. Obama accused Romney of plotting to cut education funding, but Romney retorted: “Mr. President, you’re entitled to your airplane and your house, but not to your own facts.” He struck the president again for wasting money on greendoggles, and noted that many of the recipients had been the president’s political supporters. It was probably too subtle a way to introduce the president’s cronyism, but time will tell whether that passage introduced that angle into the presidential conversation.
Gov. Mitt Romney destroyed President Barack Obama in this first debate. Had it been a boxing match, it would have been called after the first round, supposing that Obama was still on his feet. Tonight’s contest was as brutal a thumping as Americans have seen in a presidential debate to date. The president should have skipped the trip to Hoover Dam and buckled down to his debate prep. Obama was overmatched, badly, all night. And while his energy and demeanor flagged, Romney’s seemed to gather up and gain strength.
But watch George Stephanopoulos, Chris Matthews, Matt Lauer and the majority of the mainstream media turn Obama’s embarrassing performance into a triumph of some sort. No matter what really happens, they have their story to tell and they have their president to protect and re-elect.
More: Frank Luntz’s focus group voted almost to a person that Romney won. They described Obama’s performance as “flat” and “passionless.” They described Romney as strong and in command.
CBS insta-polled the debate: 46% think Romney won, 22% think Obama won. Honestly, I’m surprised it was that close.