Anyone commenting on the Mitt Romney-President Obama debate is obliged to venture a comment on stylistics, so here’s mine: I don’t agree with some of the panicked pro-Obama tweeters who thought the Republican candidate “owned” Obama, but Romney was much more commanding and at ease than I would have expected. At times Obama rambled and missed some obvious opportunities (what happened to the 47%?). But he had his moments too: I thought he was effective in attacking Romney on block-granting Medicaid and the supposed superiority of private healthcare for the elderly. (Nice deployment of the AARP here). Obama was less adroit in countering the perfectly predictable Romney argument that "Obamacare" raids $716 billion from Medicare.
We’ll see what the instant polls say, but I would give Romney an edge on performance, factoring in low expectations. The much-anticipated “zingers” were pretty lame -- Romney has five sons, so he’s used to dealing with liars; Obama is entitled to his own airplane but not to his own facts -- but he did offer a pithy enunciation of his two major themes: things are bad under Obama, and the solution is less government. He was less successful in trying to smooth some of the rough edges of his libertarian vision (for example, admitting that some regulation is necessary).
Did the viewers learn anything from the debate? Much of the wonkery was probably over a lot of their heads, and the listless Jim Lehrer didn’t do enough to make the debate accessible. (Dodd-Frank? Simpson-Bowles?) But differences did emerge: Romney opposes higher taxes on small businesses (“job creators”) and is willing to give both states (“laboratories of democracy”) and the private sector the benefit of the doubt. Obama is more aggressive about both regulation and redistribution. Romney champions enterprise and individual initiative; Obama (paternalistically?) worries that without help from government, too many citizens will founder. Call it the battle of the default modes.
Biggest missed opportunity: a frank exchange about managing medical costs, especially but not exclusively in Medicare. Romney demagogued “death panels” under Obamacare, and the president was content to point out that the advisory boards couldn’t order reductions in care. All right, no presidential candidate is going to advocate pulling the plug on Granny or even placing a limit on surgical and medical intervention in the last days of life. But without some attention to the issue of end-of-life costs, all the back and forth over vouchers and Medicare Advantage is pretty artificial.