IF ANYONE HOPED that Wednesday night’s debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney would shake the presidential candidates off their canned talking points, they would have ended the evening disappointed.
The first of three encounters between the two men did underscore major contrasts between the two candidates: on keeping or repealing Obamacare, on financial regulation, on dealing with the deficit, on the fundamental role of government. Mr. Romney lauded “free people and free enterprises, doing things together,” and derided Mr. Obama’s approach as “trickle-down government.” Mr. Obama said Mr. Romney’s refusal to accept any tax increase — even the 10-for-one spending cut for tax increase he famously rejected in a Republican primary debate — represented “an unbalanced approach that means you are going to be gutting our investments” in education, infrastructure and research.
But both candidates studiously maintained the evasions and omissions at the heart of their policies. The debate was wonky without being especially honest. Which particular deductions would Mr. Romney curtail to avoid, as he insisted he would, having the lower tax rates he proposes add trillions to the debt? He didn’t say, beyond maintaining, repeatedly, that he would not “under any circumstances raise the taxes on middle-income Americans.” How would Mr. Obama “strengthen” Social Security “over the long term,” as he said must be done? He didn’t explain, other than to say only a “tweak” is needed. Nor, on the more important issue of Medicare, did the president detail how, beyond promising to slow the growth of health care costs, he would control the rapidly growing federal program.
The candidates’ comments on how they would deal with the debt were typically unenlightening. Asked about the recommendations from the Simpson-Bowles debt reduction commission, Mr. Romney said, “The president should have grabbed that.” But would he have done so? “I have my own plan,” Mr. Romney said. “It’s not Simpson-Bowles.” Indeed, the plan Mr. Romney says should have been “grabbed” contained revenue increases that Mr. Romney forswears; Simpson-Bowles insisted that the debt cannot be erased with spending cuts or tax increases alone. Mr. Obama’s answer was similarly dodgy: “That’s what we’ve done,” he said in response to Mr. Romney’s “grabbed that” comment. “We’ve made some adjustments to it and we’re putting it before Congress right now.” That is hardly an accurate rendition of the Obama administration’s tepid, belated and inadequate response to the recommendations of his debt commission. His eventual proposal fell fall short of the reductions the commission said are essential.
One of the surprises of the evening was the number that remained unmentioned: 47 percent. Mr. Romney’s dismissive comments about Americans who pay no income taxes did not come up, either in questions from moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS or in jabs from the president. Indeed, for all the foreshadowing of zingers, such jabbing was, mercifully, largely absent. Mr. Obama, slightly ahead in the polls, was more policy professor than point-scorer. Mr. Romney, who needed more from the debate, talked at a somewhat higher elevation but also steered clear of personal attacks.
Mr. Romney effectively indicted the president for the weak state of the economy four years after his election. “We know the path we’re taking is not working,” he said. “It’s time for a new path.” Mr. Obama said Mr. Romney was peddling the same tax-cut “sales pitch that was made in 2001 and 2003,” adding, “Math, common sense and our history shows us that is not a recipe for job growth.” But the two candidates were strikingly complicit in failing to confront the magnitude of the fiscal challenge the winner will face immediately. The overriding feature of the debate was a tacit conspiracy of avoidance.