A closer look at the first presidential debate

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.

He’s always said he won’t permit his tax cuts to add to the deficit. But he also says he won’t cut taxes on the rich, and he will cut rates by 20 percent across the board, and he won’t eliminate tax breaks for savings and investment, and when you add up all these promises, you find the math doesn’t work.

One way of reading Romney’s comments is that if the math doesn’t work, he’ll sacrifice his tax cuts before he adds to the deficit. That is, I think, the right set of priorities. But it’s undercut by this:

In order for us not to lose revenue, have the government run out of money, I also lower deductions and credits and exemptions, so that we keep taking in the same money when you also account for growth.

Romney is saying, clearly, that he intends to assume faster growth will help pay for his tax cuts. How much faster growth is he expecting? What will he do if it doesn’t happen? He hasn’t said.

Where’s Obama’s plan?

It’s striking, while reading the transcript, to see how much of the debate focused on what Romney wants to do and whether it will work. The impression you come away with is that Romney has a bunch of big ideas that may not add up, but that Obama doesn’t have any big ideas at all. That isn’t entirely true to his policy agenda. The American Jobs Act, for instance, is a big idea. But Obama’s not running on it.

As Ron Brownstein wrote after the debate, “to a remarkable extent for an incumbent, Obama and his team have redirected this campaign into a referendum on the challenger.” Before the debate, I think the conventional wisdom was that this has been an accomplishment for the Obama campaign. In the debate, I think it hurt them badly.

Simpson-Bowles backfires

The role the Simpson-Bowles plan played in the debate was darkly hilarious. First, Romney said:

What I do is I bring down the tax rates, lower deductions and exemptions, the same idea behind Bowles-Simpson, by the way.

That’s just flatly untrue. The Simpson-Bowles plan cut tax rates and lowered deductions and exemptions as a way to generate $2 trillion in new revenue. Romney doesn’t generate any new revenue. Erskine Bowles, co-chair of the commission, went so far as to write an op-ed criticizing Romney for refusing to raise taxes.

Then there was this exchange:

Moderator Jim Lehrer: Governor, what about Simpson-Bowles? Do you support Simpson-Bowles?

Romney: Simpson-Bowles, the president should have grabbed that.

Lehrer: No, I mean, do you support Simpson-Bowles?

Romney: I have my own plan. It’s not the same as Simpson- Bowles. But in my view, the president should have grabbed it. If you wanted to make some adjustments to it, take it, go to Congress, fight for it.

So Romney doesn’t support Simpson-Bowles, but he’s nevertheless able to criticize the president for not grabbing onto it tightly enough. Remember, by the way, that the White House formed the commission through an executive order after Senate Republicans filibustered the bill. I think it’s fair to say that that decision was, in retrospect, a disaster for the administration.

This debate was really boring

A quick interlude to note that I am, at the moment, incredibly bored. And I like this stuff. A debate about tax policy should be right up my alley. But Obama and Romney cover the same ground again and again and again. They don’t explain themselves clearly or draw sharp contrasts. Obama, in particular, is terrible at bringing budget details down to earth. The cruel trade-offs required by the approximately $15 trillion or so in cuts and tax changes that Romney envisions are implied, rather than explained. This exercise has me more convinced than ever that these debates are won on style, as it’s almost impossible to follow the substance, even when you’re reading it, and even when you already know the underlying arguments and details.

Romney’s argument against taxes

Note how Romney explains his opposition to higher taxes:

Let me come back and say, why is it that I don’t want to raise taxes? Why don’t I want to raise taxes on people? And actually, you said it back in 2010. You said, “Look, I’m going to extend the tax policies that we have now; I’m not going to raise taxes on anyone, because when the economy is growing slow like this, when we’re in recession, you shouldn’t raise taxes on anyone.” Well, the economy is still growing slow.

First, Romney is right. Raising taxes in a weak economy is a bad move. Of course, so is cutting spending in a weak economy, and Romney seems more willing to do that. But second, note that this answer implies that Romney would be willing to raise taxes when the economy speeds up again. Let me be clear: I don’t think that’s Romney’s intended message, and I don’t think Romney would raise taxes. But the logic of the case Romney lays out in his comments — his first priority is no new tax cuts that increase the deficit, and his opposition to higher taxes is driven by slower growth — does, on its own, argue for deficit-reducing tax increases down the road.

A European non sequitur

Take it away, Gov. Romney:

Spain spends 42 percent of their total economy on government. We’re now spending 42 percent of our economy on government. I don’t want to go down the path to Spain.

Germany spends 43.7 percent of GDP “on government,” and its finances and future look rather different from Spain’s.

Obama needs to get out more

By my count, Obama doesn’t mention a real person until we’re about 6,400 words into the debate. Romney mentions a real person in his first answer of the night.

While we’re doing word counts

The word “tax” (and its variations, like “taxes”) gets mentioned more than 100 times. “Job” and “jobs” get mentioned about 50 times. Moreover, the debate focuses tightly on the candidates’ tax plans and almost never gets into their jobs plans in any great detail. In my read of how the debate progresses, this is largely because Obama makes an early decision to focus on Romney’s tax plan even though the question was about jobs.

Obama on Social Security

This didn’t get the attention it deserved:

You know, I suspect that, on Social Security, we’ve got a somewhat similar position. Social Security is structurally sound. It’s going to have to be tweaked the way it was by Ronald Reagan and Speaker — Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill. But it is — the basic structure is sound.

This is basically right. Both Obama and the Republicans have simply refused to name major Social Security cuts, taxes or reforms in their budgets. But insofar as that hides a consensus, it’s a procedural consensus: Both sides believe that changes to Social Security are too dangerous to attempt without bipartisan cover. Whether a bipartisan process would lead to agreement on how to change Social Security remains an open question. But this answer does get at one truth: Obama is a lot more open to cutting Social Security as part of a “grand bargain” than many liberals would like.

Obama on the word ‘entitlements’

This should cheer liberals a bit:

You know, my grandmother — some of you know — helped to raise me. My grandparents did. My grandfather died a while back. My grandmother died three days before I was elected president. And she was fiercely independent. She worked her way up, only had a high school education, started as a secretary, ended up being the vice president of a local bank. And she ended up living alone by choice.

And the reason she could be independent was because of Social Security and Medicare. She had worked all her life, put in this money, and understood that there was a basic guarantee, a floor under which she could not go.

And that’s the perspective I bring when I think about what’s called entitlements. You know, the name itself implies some sense of dependency on the part of these folks. These are folks who’ve worked hard, like my grandmother, and there are millions of people out there who are counting on this.

Romney on Medicare

The structure of the Medicare conversation is interesting. Romney emphasizes that his plan won’t touch anyone over age 55, and then he spends some time attacking Obama for the Medicare cuts in the Affordable Care Act. It falls on Obama to introduce Romney’s premium-support plan into the conversation.

The way Romney approaches the whole discussion suggests he thinks it’s a political loser, and the way he repeatedly emphasizes that it won’t touch current seniors is, in my view, a political mistake, as it signals to non-seniors that this is an awful plan that they will hate.

Obama shines on health care

For whatever reason, Obama is notably clearer and stronger in the health-care sections of the debate. This is true when he’s debating premium support with Romney and true when he’s defending the Affordable Care Act. He seems to have a much better idea of what he wants to say about health care than about the economy. Make of that what you will.


In general, I don’t really know what it is that people wanted Lehrer to do as moderator. His job is to structure a conversation between the two candidates. By and large, he did his job. I don’t see it as such a bad thing if they go over their time a bit, so long as both go over their time more or less equally. But in the Dodd-Frank section, Lehrer really fails as a moderator. Romney eloquently attacks Dodd-Frank for essentially designating some financial institutions as too big to fail. The idea, of course, is that these actors are subject to much more stringent regulations and oversight so that they don’t fail. He says he disagrees with this approach, and that he’ll repeal and replace it. But neither Lehrer nor Obama ever force him to say what he would replace it with.

The bottom line is that four years after the fall of Lehman, we don’t know what one of the two presidential candidates would do to regulate the financial sector. That’s rather extraordinary.

The bipartisanship two-step

I’d look at this comment by Romney to Obama as the culmination of the GOP’s plan over the past four years:

I like the way we did it in Massachusetts. I like the fact that in my state, we had Republicans and Democrats come together and work together. What you did instead was to push through a plan without a single Republican vote.

Got that? Republicans refused to work with you, Mr. President, and that makes you a harsh partisan. Democrats were willing to work with me, and that makes me a bipartisan uniter.

The fight over the Medicare board

Much of the debate between Obama and Romney on health comes down to the Independent Payment Advisory Board, the group of experts meant to slow health-care spending in Medicare. Romney doesn’t much like that idea:

In my opinion, the government is not effective in — in bringing down the cost of almost anything. As a matter of fact, free people and free enterprises trying to find ways to do things better are able to be more effective in bringing down the cost than the government will ever be.

This gets to one of the very real philosophical and substantive disagreements in the election. Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) believe you can save money by capping program spending and handing the dollars over to states or seniors to spend better. Obama and Vice President Biden believe you can save money by capping programs and giving independent experts the freedom to manage them better.

Oddly, the Obama-Biden approach more closely resembles the management consulting that made Romney rich, while the Romney-Ryan approach more closely resembles community organizing.

Romney and the Republicans

Toward the end, Romney talks about how he “had the great experience — [though] it didn’t seem like it at the time — of being elected in a state where my legislature was 87 percent Democrat.” It’s a somewhat irrelevant argument, given that there’s no way Democrats will hold a substantial majority in the House or Senate at the beginning of a Romney presidency, but it was a very smart one for Romney to make. This leads to one of Obama’s better riffs:

Obama: What’s important is occasionally you’ve got to say no, to — to — to folks both in your own party and in the other party. And, you know, yes, have we had some fights between me and the Republicans when — when they fought back against us reining in the excesses of Wall Street? Absolutely, because that was a fight that needed to be had. When — when we were fighting about whether or not we were going to make sure that Americans had more security with their health insurance and they said no, yes, that was a fight that we needed to have.

Lehrer: All right.

Obama: And so part of leadership and governing is both saying what it is that you are for, but also being willing to say no to some things. And I’ve got to tell you, Governor Romney, when it comes to his own party during the course of this campaign, has not displayed that willingness to say no to some of the more extreme parts of his party.

It’s such a good riff, in fact, that you wonder why Obama didn’t use it during the first hour and 25 minutes of the debate. Indeed, it’s interesting how little effort Obama expended tying Romney to House Republicans or the Ryan budget or really anything except for a particular price tag for his tax cuts.

Which isn’t to say Romney was particularly thematic in his strategy, either. More so than Obama, he actually stuck pretty tightly to the questions asked of him and focused on delivering clear, appealing answers. He didn’t win through a superior overarching strategy so much as he won by simply doing a better job.

I also don’t think he won by lying. This is a meme that cropped up after the debate, and while Romney did tell a few whoppers — that his health plan covers pre-existing conditions and that half of the green-energy investments made in the stimulus have failed — he mostly danced around the ambiguities in his policies in a way that appeared to confound Obama. Indeed, while Obama’s policies are much more specific than Romney’s, Romney’s performance was much more specific than Obama’s. You saw this in the closing statements, where Obama ended with gauzy generalities and Romney closed by ticking off concrete policy promises.

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