As with last week’s vice presidential debate, the public and pundits alike registered snap judgments about the first presidential debate. It’s conventional wisdom that the best way to see who’s winning a debate is to watch with the sound off. That way you can focus on body language, physical comfort and the intangibles that supposedly decide who triumphed.
I went back and watched a bit of the first presidential debate with the sound off. And the conventional wisdom is right: Mitt Romney came off much better than President Obama.
But to understand what was essentially a weedy tax argument that no normal human being could possibly follow, it’s best to turn the TV off and read the debate transcript. By doing so, I ended up more impressed than I initially was with both candidates. Reading the debate doesn’t necessarily change your impression of who won — Romney’s answers are still crisper and more focused than Obama’s — but it did give me more appreciation for how specific each candidate was in what he was saying. A few notes:
Romney’s $8 trillion plan
Everyone remembers the endless argument over Romney’s $5 trillion tax plan. But the argument Obama was trying to make — and that he did make over and again — was that $5 trillion is an underestimate. Here’s Obama:
Governor Romney’s central economic plan calls for a $5 trillion tax cut — on top of the extension of the Bush tax cuts — that’s another trillion dollars — and $2 trillion in additional military spending that the military hasn’t asked for. That’s $8 trillion. How we pay for that, reduce the deficit, and make the investments that we need to make, without dumping those costs onto middle-class Americans, I think is one of the central questions of this campaign.
Let’s run through that math a bit more slowly. Romney’s tax cuts cost $5 trillion over 10 years before his (unnamed) offsets. Extending the Bush tax cuts on income over $250,000 adds another $1 trillion. Then there’s the $2 trillion in new defense spending. So before Romney can cut the deficit by a dime, he has to come up with $8 trillion in offsets and savings for these plans.
It probably wasn’t wise for Obama to keep hammering at this point. You need to understand the budget pretty well to understand what he’s saying. But it’s clear that this is what really offends him about Romney’s policy proposals. As someone who has had to sit in budget negotiations trying to make much smaller numbers work, he knows there’s no way that Romney can do what he’s saying he’ll do, and the fact that Romney hasn’t given us any details proves it.
Romney’s tax priorities
Romney was more explicit than he’s previously been on how he’s thinking about taxes. For instance:
My No. 1 principle is that there will be no tax cut that adds to the deficit. I want to underline that: no tax cut that adds to the deficit.