The identifying characteristic of progressives' syndrome, which I believe psychiatrists have been following since the Truman administration, is their defensiveness about their own policies when they're challenged by Big Business and other stalwarts of the status quo.
It would take a three-day academic colloquium to cover all the manifestations of this condition displayed at this week's debate by President Obama.
Certainly the Obama administration has had its ups and downs since taking office in 2009. But among the achievements benefiting average Americans and businesses of all sizes, one should count these: healthcare reform, which will bring affordable coverage to millions of Americans and has already cut costs and improved access for seniors and young people; the Dodd-Frank Act, which has tightened regulation of mortgage issuers, begun the overdue task of regulating the consumer financial industry, and started to make mega-banks more accountable for the risks they present to the economy; and the stimulus, which has kept millions of Americans from losing their jobs while investing in physical infrastructure and alternative energy projects.
The programs are complicated, their effects nuanced. None is a quick fix, which means they're all vulnerable to being pronounced failures even before they take effect. They require a consistent, full-throated defense — as do Social Security and Medicare, which are also under attack.
Obama's listless performance during the debate didn't even amount to a half-throated defense of initiatives that will set the foundations for broad economic growth in the future. Instead, he allowed his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, to flagrantly misrepresent them. In that respect, he fell far short of the standards set by two of his Democratic predecessors. Bill Clinton would never have let Romney get away with it; nor would the Franklin Roosevelt of 1936, who mocked his GOP opponents for the "smooth evasion" with which they assured Americans: "We believe in social security; we believe in work for the unemployed; we believe in saving homes; cross our hearts and hope to die."
The fact-checking army has been busy over the last few days picking over the more glaring misstatements by both debaters. But they're bound to overlook the more subtle points.
It's proper to observe that staging a point-by-point defense of complex programs is never simple. The advantage always goes to the sniper.
For example, here's how Obama replied to Romney's swipe at the Independent Payment Advisory Board. That's an appointed body created by the healthcare reform act to examine Medicare cost increases starting in 2015 and submit proposals for program changes, which would have to be approved by Congress.
Republicans aim to portray this board as the embodiment of the "death panels" that reform opponents claimed would be in the law; Romney applied the sinister description of "an unelected board ... that can tell people ultimately what treatments they're going to receive." It's nothing of the kind: The law prohibits this board from recommending any rationing of care, benefit restrictions or changes in eligibility.
"What this is," Obama struggled to explain, "is a group of healthcare experts, doctors, et cetera, to figure out, how can we reduce the cost of care in the system overall. What this board does is basically identifies best practices and says, let's use the purchasing power of Medicare and Medicaid to help to institutionalize all these good things that we do."
Did this hold your attention? Mine neither. But you try coming up with a sound bite that would concisely explain that Romney was talking malarkey, and why. And try sounding presidential while doing so.
To be fair, Obama's responses to Romney's statements appear more salient when they appear in the written transcript of the debate than they did on television, on the fly. That's Obama's oratorical failing, and there may be no cure.
There were points, however, where he just let misstatements stand. Some of these passed like flashes in the night, as when Romney stated that "to save Medicare ... we have to have the benefits high for those that are low income, but for higher income people, we're going to have to lower some of the benefits."
That policy — which contradicts Romney's own published Medicare proposal — would do almost nothing to cut Medicare costs. The program's spending skews hugely toward middle and working-class elders: The median income of its beneficiaries was $22,800 in 2006, when 77% of all beneficiaries earned $40,000 or less (including Social Security income). At the other end of the scale, 3% had incomes of $100,000 or more. Cutting their benefits won't move the needle on program costs more than a nanometer.
The major flaw of Dodd-Frank, the financial reform act, is that it's half of the full-loaf reform package called for by the financial crisis — the proper take on it is that it should be strengthened, not repealed, to protect the economy from risk-addled bankers. That's not Romney's take. He trained his sights on the too-big-to-fail provisions. These identify big banks as "systemically significant" — meaning that their failure could help bring down the entire financial system.
Romney contended that the provision allows such institutions to be "effectively guaranteed by the federal government" and labeled it "the biggest kiss that's been given to New York banks I've ever seen ... an enormous boon to them." These may have been his most blatantly disingenuous words of the night, and they passed with only a generalized riposte by Obama.
The truth is that the banks subject to the designation, such as JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America, don't remotely consider it a "kiss." They've been fighting to overturn the rule, which would require them to meet especially stringent capital requirements and to submit to federal "resolution authority" — that is, special government authority to take them over and dismantle them if they run into trouble. Moreover, the House Republican budget drafted by Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, would repeal the most important provisions for oversight of these banks — effectively creating just the "blank check" for huge institutions that Romney claimed to decry.
As for Romney's claim that Dodd-Frank's tighter regulations for mortgage issuers have made banks "reluctant to make [home] loans" ("Try to get a mortgage these days," he said), the numbers don't back him up, and Obama should have had the right ones on hand. Mortgage originations rose to $372 billion in the second quarter this year, according to the Mortgage Bankers Assn. That's up 28% from a year ago, and compares to $297 billion in September 2008, in the pre-Dodd-Frank depths of the financial crisis.
Another Romney potshot was aimed at the administration's green energy initiatives, which combine energy and stimulus policy. Romney accused the White House of picking "losers" as beneficiaries of $90 billion in incentives. "This is not the kind of policy you have if you want to get America energy-secure," he said.
Romney's suggestion that of the firms that received the administration's $90 billion in incentives for green jobs "half ... have gone out of business" is easily debunked, but wasn't during the debate.
To start with, that $90 billion encompasses a lot more than individual company incentives. It includes $29 billion for residential and industrial energy-saving upgrades; $21 billion for installation of wind turbines and solar generators; $18 billion for high-speed rail and other transit improvements; $10 billion to upgrade electrical transmission infrastructure; and $3 billion for green job training.
How do we know this critique of the energy program is threadbare? Because Romney mentioned Solyndra, the failed solar manufacturer that is the conservatives' all-purpose reproach to an effort that has, in fact, contributed to 100% growth in the solar industry this year and last. The failure rate of companies that received Solyndra-style federal loan guarantees isn't 50%, as Romney claimed. It's 12% — four companies out of 33, representing 1.4% of all Energy Department dollars invested in renewable technologies.
As for the other ostensibly failed companies Romney mentioned — Tesla Motors, Fisker Automotive and Ener1, a battery firm — the first two are still very much alive, rolling out new electric vehicles, and rather resentful of Romney's drive-by assault. Ener1 went bankrupt, but the recipient of the federal guarantee was its battery subsidiary EnerDel, which is still operating. (Ener1 emerged from bankruptcy in March.)
Romney's goal, it seems, was to promote his own energy policy, which involves stepping up oil drilling on federal tracts offshore and in the sensitive Alaskan preserve. Obama tried to mount a defense: "We've got to look at the energy sources of the future, like wind and solar and biofuels, and make those investments," he said. But it may not have been pointed or spirited enough to register.
One could say, as have many disappointed Obama supporters over the last few days, that it's his responsibility to mount a defense, and his loss if he fails to do so. But programs such as healthcare reform, financial regulation and the stimulus are at the heart of the progressive approach to governing. If Obama is not going to stand as the steward of their underlying principles, who will?
Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at email@example.com, read past columns at latimes.com/hiltzik, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.