Americans might have been surprised by their reintroduction to Mitt Romney and President Obama in Wednesday night’s first debate. For months they had been hearing about Romney, the heartless capitalist, and Obama, the unapologetic socialist.
The two men who discussed the future of the country for an hour and a half in prime-time television looked nothing like those caricatures that have been presented by ideologues. Both men came across as reasonable, competent and, yes, presidential.
But that sense of command presence accrues more to the benefit of Romney, who remained somewhat unknown to many voters before the debate, than it does to Obama, who was already seen as likable by many voters, including many of those who don’t agree with all his policies.
The sense of a Romney advantage in Debate No. 1 became more pronounced in the minutes immediately following the debate, when TV analysts praised Romney’s strong showing and called Obama lackluster.
CNN commentator David Gergen, a centrist who has advised candidates of both parties, declared Romney the winner. “We’ve got a horse race,” Gergen said. “Mitt Romney was head and shoulders better than anything we have seen him do before.”
Others on the CNN panel after the debate described Obama as “listless,” and “angry at times” and appearing “like he didn’t want to be there.” An instant poll from the cable outlet found that registered voters gave the debate to Romney by a 67% to 25% margin.
If the voters were energized by the debate, commentators seemed equally so — sharing Gergen’s assessment that a race that has featured a slight Obama lead for months could now be in flux. But cautionary notes must be sounded too. Tepid first-debate performances by President Reagan in 1984 and by President George W. Bush in 2004 caused the two Republicans to temporarily swoon in the polls. But both incumbents ultimately defeated their Democratic opponents.
Obama will clearly hope for a similar turnaround.
Obama also took only mild swipes at Romney and many of them well into the debate, when at least some viewers may have already moved on to other programs. Obama never raised Romney’s highly criticized remarks at a private fundraiser, when he called 47% of Americans “victims” who depended on government. He didn’t attack the Republican’s alleged practice of “vulture capitalism” — using his venture capital firm to win big profits but not to benefit American workers.
And Obama had plenty of room to raise those issues. Moderator Jim Lehrer, the PBS anchorman, seemed hesitant to interrupt the president. The result was that Obama got a total of four minutes more than Romney over the course of the session — nearly 43 minutes to 38 1/2 minutes.
The sharpest exchanges came when the two men engaged in a lengthy exchange about taxes. Romney insisted that he would enact an across-the-board 20% income tax cut without increasing the deficit or requiring offsetting tax increases on the middle class. Obama argued that it was time to increase tax rates on families making over $250,000 a year to help balance the budget.
In what might have been the signature lines of the night, Romney said the president wanted to increase the scope of “trickle-down government.” Obama said his Republican opponent wanted to “double down on the top-down economic policies.”
Romney said that the poor state of the economy over the last four years was, of itself, a form of tax that he called “the economy tax.” He said the recession in jobs and incomes had pummeled the middle class. “They're just being crushed,” Romney said. “It's been crushing.”
Obama pushed hard on the idea that voters did not know what they were getting with Romney because he would not name specifically what he would do with the tax code to pay for the broad tax cut he said would cost $5 trillion and defense spending increases of $2 trillion.
“Gov. Romney's proposal that he has been promoting for 18 months calls for a $5 trillion tax cut, on top of $2 trillion of additional spending for our military. He is saying that he is going to pay for it by closing loopholes and deductions,” Obama said near the top of the debate. “The problem is that he's been asked over 100 times how you would close those deductions and loopholes, and he hasn't been able to identify them.”
One of Romney’s strongest moments came near the end of the debate when moderator Lehrer asked him to define the role of government. He said government was needed for some functions, like national defense, but had grown way too large.
“We also believe in maintaining for individuals the right to pursue their dreams and not to have the government substitute itself for the rights of free individuals,” Romney said. “And what we're seeing right now is, in my view, a -- a trickle-down government approach, which has government thinking it can do a better job than free people pursuing their dreams. And it's not working.”
Romney then unleashed a litany of statistics to prove his point: “And the proof of that is 23 million people out of work. The proof of that is 1 out of 6 people in poverty. The proof of that is we've gone from 32 million on food stamps to 47 million on food stamps. The proof of that is that 50% of college graduates this year can't find work.”
Obama returned to his gambit of questioning what Romney was not telling Americans. He said that shortcoming applied not just to taxes and healthcare but to his plan to replace the Dodd-Frank reforms for Wall Street.
Obama charged Romney “won't tell us,” adding: “At some point, I think the American people have to ask themselves, is the reason that Gov. Romney is keeping all these plans to replace secret because they're too good? Is it -- is it because that somehow middle-class families are going to benefit too much from them?”
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