First debate helps Romney

Debates seldom turn elections, but this one should help President Obama’s challenger.

October 4, 2012 

Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts who won the Republican nomination for president after a rigorous primary campaign, may have been in more debates than any candidate ever to seek the White House. He went through GOP primaries four years ago, and again for the past couple of years, sometimes up against tough, sophisticated opponents. The Republican debate stage often was crowded.

On Wednesday night, Romney’s experience and hard training showed, though it would be going too far to say he made a convincing case against President Obama, who waltzed to the Democratic party nomination for a second term.

Romney did, however, reinvigorate a campaign that was flagging thanks to some gaffes on his part, including his private monologue to supporters reckoning that 47 percent of Americans are somehow dependent on government and want to be, and that they’re the ones who will vote for Obama. That comment made Romney seem out of touch and even arrogant.

But Wednesday, at the University of Denver, the wealthy capitalist with the $250 million fortune and the car elevator in one of his homes came across like a populist, vowing he would not raise taxes on the middle class (Democrats say his tax cut proposals for the rich would require it) and certainly wouldn’t be giving the wealthy huge tax breaks. He said he understood that some people needed assistance from government. He said he wanted to help the middle class. He said he would eliminate tax breaks in the current code to allow him to cut taxes for everyone. He emphasized his support for public education.

Romney never did square those statements with his “47 percent” comments or with the platform he’s been campaigning on for months. And President Obama never forced him to do so.

The president touted his efforts to restore the economy through necessary investment including the auto bailout (which Romney opposed) and stood behind his own $4 trillion deficit-reduction plan. Romney said he’d lower the deficit by cutting government programs that couldn’t be paid for.

Here are examples of debate rhetoric versus political reality. Half of the planned deficit reduction the president mentioned is coming through a deal he already has made with Congress for future program cuts. And Romney’s scenario sounds good, but cutting popular programs, which will be a no-choice option without additional taxes, likely won’t fly even with Republicans in Congress.

This type of fact-massaging isn’t uncommon in debates, which are part theater, after all. But voters would do well to focus more on the candidates’ established positions.

In Romney’s case, for example, his vow to protect Medicare isn’t entirely compatible with his running mate’s flirtation with making some radical alternations in Medicare that could even include what amounts to a questionable voucher program in future years. Paul Ryan, the veep choice and congressman from Wisconsin, has talked about entitlement programs with a budget in one hand and a sharp blade in the other.

For his part, the president is fond of facts and figures run by “think tanks,” and he gilds the lily when it comes to jobs figures. And in his voluminous recitation of facts, he can forget the importance of passion in leadership. In this debate the passion seemed in short supply.

There will be two more debates. But the campaigns around them and the voters’ own self-education can be more enlightening.

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