Romney did the better job covering over his weaknesses during the debate, but he's positioned himself for a lot of uncomfortable followup questions. Obama just needs to sharpen his message and shorten his answers. He also needs to practice with someone other than John Kerry (Mr. Long-Winded Answers). I'm not sure who would be a good stand-in for the short, snappy, but polite answers that Romney gave. No Democrat comes to mind, and that's a sad commentary on the Dems.
SummaryHere is my overall impression of the debate:
- Romney was strong on the attack, but purposefully vague about his own plans.
- Obama was moderately good in his defense. Unfortunately, he let his points get lost in too much detail.
Their WeaknessesRomney is declaring that he won't increase the deficit. He's not even claiming he'll lower the deficit, as a good fiscal conservative should, but only that he won't be worse than Obama on this score.
Yet he has to be vague because he did promise to cut tax rates by 20%, and he'll need to offset that by removing deductions. It looks to me as though his tax rate cut is no longer a promise, and he can probably be nailed on that. However, once he admits it, then the funny math stops being a disadvantage to him, unless of course it costs him the GOP base.
Romney has similar problems with healthcare for people who aren't covered by employers and the future of Medicare. The solutions he proposed in the primaries don't really hold water in the general. He has no answer for the uninsured, and his Medicare proposal is a voucher program that throws seniors into a tough marketplace.
Obama is mealy-mouthed about spending restraint generally. He states that he wants government to help give people opportunities, and most of us know that translates into lots of programs that suck up revenue. He doesn't sound like he's really committed to fiscal restraint.
He overreached in accusing Romney of supporting a $5 trillion dollar tax cut. He could have scored on some very pointed criticism, but now Romney has him sounding like a liar. Obama might have thrown away a big advantage there, but I hope not, because it's a strong, valid point.
Neither candidate had a strong closing statement. Obama was scattered. Romney basically said that another four years of Obama will be awful, but he (Romney) won't be awful. That didn't resonate with the audience (or CNN's focus group), and it's hardly a positive argument for electing him.
Their StrengthsRomney was detailed about what he wanted to do with Medicaid--block grant with 1% increase per year, and give the states the freedom to develop their own programs and priorities. This sounds a lot like what happened with welfare reform, which was successful in turning a huge ongoing headache into a more respectable social program. Notably, it was the only issue where Romney was specific about what he would do.
Romney is making sure he doesn't sound like a heartless robber baron who'll slash education, Medicare, Medicaid, and most government departments. He's back to saying, as he did last fall before the primary heated up, that he'll shrink the government by attrition of government workers, not by sheaths of pink slips.
Overall, Romney sounds like someone who sensibly sees that government has grown too large, and he doesn't want to grow it anymore. Instead, he wants to slim it down gently. This is a good contrast to Obama, who is still building it up.
In Obama's $90 billion for green jobs, Romney has found a great, multi-purposed stick to bash Obama with. Obama wants to spend more on teachers- bam, that $90 billion would pay for a lot of teachers. Want to close a $2 billion loophole for oil companies, bam, you spent 50 years of that money on green jobs.
Obama's strengths are in his explanation of Obamacare and restraint on Medicare spending. His critique about throwing seniors into a nasty healthcare insurance market with only vouchers rang true over and over. Romney had to keep saying that it wouldn't affect today's seniors (but damnation for the rest).
What They Won't Talk AboutNeither candidate talked about the sequester, or the "fiscal cliff"--the combination of the sequester and the expiration of tax cuts. This is the hard stuff, the actual cuts, and neither candidate will touch it. Neither is offering even smaller deficits, even though deficits are still running over $1 trillion per year. There are no medals for courage awarded here.
Neither talked much about what they'd do about the Bush tax cuts, even to attack the other. Only one mention of these tax cuts -- amazing. This must be where both are extremely vulnerable, so neither will make it an issue. The moderator should have put them on the spot.
Romney continues to use Simpson-Bowles as another club with which to beat Obama. However, he doesn't embrace S-B. He pretends that he likes it, only he's got a better version. Considering how well I know Simpson-Bowles, I can declare that this is hogwash, otherwise known as craven, corrupt lying on Romney's part. However, I'm happy that Simpson-Bowles continues to be a touchstone. It doesn't die because it's a great plan.
Take-awayI notice that there isn't a lot of video circulating from this debate. There was no knock-out moment. Romney looks like a stronger opponent, but the same weaknesses are still there. Obama will be able to reverse this setback, and Romney has very little he can capitalize on. Romney may have won the debate on style, but it's not a lasting or substantial victory.
That's either Jim Lehrer or the truth.