In debate, Romney struggled on substance

October 17, 2012
Nikki Khan/Washington Post

They say that to tell who won a debate, watch it with the sound off. What I learned after the last debate, however, is that to tell what was actually said at a debate, you don't want to watch it at all. You want to read it

After the first debate, President Obama's supporters comforted themselves by saying Obama's deficiencies were stylistic, and Romney's victory was the result of confident lying. But reading the transcript, it quickly came clear that President Obama's stylistic shortcomings were connected to his substantive shortcomings. His answers were rambling, his case for his candidacy was vague, and his attacks on Romney were often confused. 

So I sat down tonight with a rush transcript of tonight's debate. The same thing was true. The candidate who struggled on style also struggled on substance. But this time, that candidate was Romney. A few notes:

- Romney is better at talking about what he'll spend than what he'll cut. The first question tonight came from Jeremy, a college student, asking whether he'd have a job after graduation. The answer is almost certainly yes: The unemployment rate for college graduates is 4.1 percent, as opposed to 11.3 percent for high-school dropouts. Even so, note how Romney responds:

When I was governor of Massachusetts, to get a high school degree, you had to pass an exam. If you graduated in the top quarter of your airlines, we gave you a John and Abigail Adams scholarship, four years tuition free in the college of your choice in Massachusetts, it’s a public institution.

I want to make sure we keep our Pell grant program growing. We’re also going to have our loan program, so that people are able to afford school.

In other words, he'll spend more on education. Pell grants are, for the record, quite a bit costlier than PBS subsidies, which were the cut Romney focused on in the last debate. For someone with such an ambitious budget plan, he doesn't like talking about his cuts very much.

- Manufacturing, manufacturing, manufacturing. Here's the very first part of President Obama's very first answer:

Number one, I want to build manufacturing jobs in this country again. Now when Governor Romney said we should let Detroit go bankrupt. I said we’re going to bet on American workers and the American auto industry and it’s come surging back.

I want to do that in industries, not just in Detroit, but all across the country and that means we change our tax code so we’re giving incentives to companies that are investing here in the United States and creating jobs here.

The word "manufacturing" was used 11 times in this debate. You would think it was the key to the entire economy. But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, manufacturing jobs only account for 8.6 percent of total non-farm jobs. The definitions get tricky here, so perhaps the real number is a bit higher. But it's not much higher. And it's not going to become much higher due to a tax incentive. People like the sound of "manufacturing jobs," but it's overwhelmingly likely that when Jeremy graduates, he'll get a job that isn't in manufacturing. Perhaps he'll work in the service sector, as almost 70 percent of Americans do.

Romney's fuzzy employment math. Oy:

The unemployment rate was 7.8 percent when he took office, it’s 7.8 percent now. But if you calculated that unemployment rate, taking back the people who dropped out of the workforce, it would be 10.7 percent.

We have not made the progress we need to make to put people back to work. That’s why I put out a five-point plan that gets America 12 million new jobs in four years and rising take-home pay.

First, Romney's unemployment calculation doesn't make sense. The labor force has been shrinking since the Bush years, as the Baby Boomers are retiring. Labor-force participation went from 67.2 in January 2001 to 65.7 in January 2009. It's since fallen to 63.6. Discouraged workers are a real problem, but much of this is structural, and much of what's not structural is the result of a devastating recession that began before Obama entered office. Romney's number here isn't remotely fair.

As for Romney's "12 million jobs," we covered this a bit earlier on Wonkblog. The number is just nonsense.

- No, Romney didn't support the auto bailout. Sorry, but this isn't true:

I know he keeps saying, you want to take Detroit bankrupt. Well, the president took Detroit bankrupt. You took General Motors bankrupt. You took Chrysler bankrupt. So when you say that I wanted to take the auto industry bankrupt, you actually did.

And I think it’s important to know that that was a process that was necessary to get those companies back on their feet, so they could start hiring more people. That was precisely what I recommended and ultimately what happened.

Romney's is essentially arguing that the president ultimately took his advice on the auto bailout. That's not the case. Romney opposed taxpayer financing while the car companies were in bankruptcy -- financing that was the only way for them to survive bankruptcy during a moment when the global credit markets were frozen. But don't listen to me. Here's Romney:

The president tells us that without his intervention things in Detroit would be worse. I believe that without his intervention things there would be better.

- Where was climate change? The third question of the night was about Energy Secretary Stephen Chu's contention that it's not his job to lower gas prices. Romney, by the way, once agreed with Chu that lowering gas prices should not be the government's goal. But that was back when both Democrats and Republicans agreed that climate change was a threat. Today, neither side talks much about climate change, and so while it wasn't much of a surprise that Romney didn't bring up global warming, it was notable that Obama didn't, either. Instead, he bragged about increasing employment in the coal industry. Yuck.

- Romney's tax math still doesn't add up. Obama has gotten much better at pointing that out. I want to quote Mitt Romney's description of his tax plan at some length. I want to do that because nothing makes clearer that Romney is not serious about making his numbers work than listening to him describe how he'll make the numbers work:

I’m going to bring rates down across the board for everybody, but I’m going to limit deductions and exemptions and credits, particularly for people at the high end, because I am not going to have people at the high end pay less than they’re paying now.

The top 5 percent of taxpayers will continue to pay 60 percent of the income tax the nation collects. So that’ll stay the same. Middle-income people are going to get a tax break.

And so, in terms of bringing down deductions, one way of doing that would be say everybody gets -- I’ll pick a number -- $25,000 of deductions and credits, and you can decide which ones to use. Your home mortgage interest deduction, charity, child tax credit, and so forth, you can use those as part of filling that bucket, if you will, of deductions.

The rate cuts Romney is describing will cost approximately $4.8 trillion. The policy he laid out to pay for them -- that $25,000 cap on deductions -- will raise about $730 billion. We often get caught up in this somewhat absurd discussion over whether Romney's tax cuts are mathematically possible. What this should tell you is that they are not politically possible. Romney is offering illustrative specifics and they're not anywhere near what would be needed to make a credible run at revenue neutrality. 

Obama struggled in the first debate because he made the question whether Romney really has a $5 trillion tax cut. Romney, who has always promised to pay for his tax cut, could simply insist that he doesn't. But Obama was considerably more elegant and more accurate in his attack tonight:

Look, the cost of lowering rates for everybody across the board, 20 percent. Along with what he also wants to do in terms of eliminating the estate tax, along what he wants to do in terms of corporates, changes in the tax code, it costs about $5 trillion.

Governor Romney then also wants to spend $2 trillion on additional military programs even though the military’s not asking for them. That’s $7 trillion.

He also wants to continue the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. That’s another trillion dollars -- that’s $8 trillion.

Now, what he says is he’s going to make sure that this doesn’t add to the deficit and he’s going to cut middleclass taxes.

But when he’s asked, how are you going to do it, which deductions, which loopholes are you going to close? He can’t tell you...Now, Governor Romney was a very successful investor. If somebody came to you, Governor, with a plan that said, here, I want to spend $7 or $8 trillion, and then we’re going to pay for it, but we can’t tell you until maybe after the election how we’re going to do it, you wouldn’t take such a sketchy deal and neither should you, the American people, because the math doesn’t add up.

Romney's reply? A strong of non-sequiturs followed by a change of subject:

Well of course they add up. I -- I was -- I was someone who ran businesses for 25 years, and balanced the budget. I ran the Olympics and balanced the budget. I ran the -- the state of Massachusetts as a governor, to the extent any governor does, and balanced the budget all four years. When we’re talking about math that doesn’t add up, how about $4 trillion of deficits over the last four years, $5 trillion?

- Romney has no policy on pay equity. This is just straight-up word salad:

We’re going to have to have employers in the new economy, in the economy I’m going to bring to play, that are going to be so anxious to get good workers they’re going to be anxious to hire women. In the -- in the last women have lost 580,000 jobs. That’s the net of what’s happened in the last four years. We’re still down 580,000 jobs. I mentioned 31/2 million women, more now in poverty than four years ago.

What we can do to help young women and women of all ages is to have a strong economy, so strong that employers that are looking to find good employees and bringing them into their workforce and adapting to a flexible work schedule that gives women opportunities that they would otherwise not be able to afford. This is what I have done. It’s what I look forward to doing and I know what it takes to make an economy work, and I know what a working economy looks like.

It's late, so I'll pick this up again in the morning. As you'll see in the next part, Romney did have some good moments in this debate. Indeed, his best moments in this debate were far better than Obama's best moments in the first debate.

But overall, the trend from this first half holds: Obama was the aggressor, and he broadly knew what he wanted to say. Romney spent most of the debate on defense, and he often didn't know what he wanted to say. That was truer nowhere than on the two of the night's defining exchanges: Romney's effort to distinguish his policies from those of George W. Bush, and his answer on Libya.

Moreover, conservatives should find tonight's transcript worrying. Romney's answers were worst when he was describing how he'll accomplish his key conservative goals. He's clearly not committed to the kind of tax reforms needed to pay for his tax cuts, and given his insistence that he won't pass any tax cuts that increase the deficit or cut taxes on the rich, it's hard to see how he'll be able to pass large tax cuts at all. The same is true on his spending cuts, where he's been, if anything, vaguer than on his tax cuts. Again, it's hard to see a candidate this afraid of trying to sell the American people on the details necessary to make conservative policies work actually following through on those policies. 

More soon.

Update: Here's part 2.

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