President Obama hasth facts on his side and the best policies for advancing prosperity, tax equity, jobs and secure health care for the broad range of middle-class Americans, yet he let Mitt Romney out-punch him — often with below-the-belt hits and pure deceit — in their first presidential debate Wednesday night. Voters who don't keep tabs on the fact-checking analyses that separate distortions and falsehoods from the actual policy and budget proposals of the candidates likely would give Romney higher marks for his showy debate performance.
Romney turned out to be more aggressive and cogent in repeating his talking points, though many flipped the facts upside down. He repeatedly denied, for example, that his implausible tax cuts would add to federal debt, never mind the documented math. And he returned repeatedly to false claims, like the charge that Obama's 10-year projection for reining in Medicare spending would "cut" $716 billion from Medicare.
Both are patently false. Obama correctly emphasized that Romney's proposed tax plan, as scored by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, actually would cost $7 trillion in new debt over the next 10 years — $5 trillion for more lopsided tax cuts and $2 trillion in added defense spending — while Obama's proposed budget plan for the same period would trim federal debt by $4 trillion. Romney just kept intensely denying those findings, without once being required to make his claim add up.
Obama would largely reap his Medicare savings by eliminating the 2003 GOP-legislated Medicare subsidies for private insurers' profit margins on Medicare Part B Advantage and prescription drug policies. Obama would put those savings back into Medicare to broaden coverage, to close the prescription "doughnut hole, and to extend the life of the Medicare trust fund. Romney's plan, conversely, would dismantle Medicare for, as he said, younger Americans "under 60."
Obama failed to nail effective rebuttals, however, allowing Romney to keep pounding fallacious statements. He let Romney airbrush his aim to voucherize Medicare. He let him hammer the false claim that Obama was somehow responsible for the consequences — the revenue fall-off, deficits and fearsome 8.8 million lost jobs — of the historically deep recession that greeted Obama when he took office. He further failed to rebut Romney's fabrication that Obama wasted $90 billion on "green energy," though the energy efficiency component in the stimulus package was far smaller, and most of it went to energy conservation projects with a long return.
Most troubling, he let Romney keep sliding in the argument that his promise to lower taxes for all Americans was a way to promote broader economic growth. In fact, Romney uses that failed GOP trickle-down argument to camouflage his plan for cutting essential services while extending more big tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans, who already got the lion's share of the Bush tax cuts.
Romney simply kept saying that his reckless tax cuts wouldn't reduce the top 1 percent's "share of taxes." Yet the real issue is the need to raise the disproportionately low "share" of taxes that rich corporations, billionaires and megamillionaires like Romney now pay — if they pay any taxes at all. The nation's super-rich get off with a 15 percent dividend tax rate on most of their income, while struggling middle-class families pay a higher rate. Obama didn't even ask Romney why he refuses to reveal his own tax records from 2000 to 2010, when he was sheltering most of his Bain Capital riches in off-shore tax havens in at least six foreign countries.
Even more surprisingly, he neglected to even raise Romney's deeply flawed description, taped at a Romney fundraiser, of 47 percent of Americans as nontaxpayers addicted to entitlements and leaches on government.
Romney took full advantage of Obama's reticence, plowing through debate rules and talking over moderator Jim Lehrer to assert his false framework on a range of other issues. He glibly panned Obamacare as a federal takeover of healthcare, for instance, even though it leaves private insurers and providers responsible for care, and was modeled after his own plan in Massachusetts. He praised the premise of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, yet said it, too, like Obamacare and environmental rules, needed to be repealed.
Romney's most well rehearsed talking points were largely overbearing misstatements and ficticious depictions of Obama's achievements, and of his own proposals for the past 18 months. But given his energy for the fray versus Obama's less assertive style and less pointed prescriptions, Romney might well have appeared sharper and more engaged to voters just tuning in to the race.
Obama's bent for accommodating tolerance of his adversaries overshadowed his own substance. That has caused the president problems with intransigent Republican congressmen before, and it will cause him problems again in the next two debates if he doesn't sharpen his delivery.