Wednesday's Free Press editorial page featured a "to-do list" of five things that Mitt Romney needed to accomplish in order to win the debate and, more importantly, turn momentum of the election in his favor.
Those five things were:
1.) Look like a Human being
2.) Harp on the economy
3.) Be aggressive
4.) Fight against big government
5.) Clarify the vision for America
Not only did Romney succeed in all five areas, President Barack Obama appeared smug, disinterested and wonky, while failing to articulate a compelling defense for his shortcoming as president. As a result, by any reasonable measure, Romney won the debate convincingly.
More importantly, with his stellar debate performance, Romney may have changed the tone of the entire election.
Going into the debate, Romney was seen by many moderate and undecided voters as little more than the lesser of two evils. While his policy proposals were occasionally ideologically disjointed, Romney presented himself as likeable and charming, while communicating his beliefs about the proper role of government and the differences between Obama's platform and his own.
Romney's performance was sterling, far better than anyone reasonably anticipated, but Obama brought the perceived debate loss upon himself.
The president was clearly underprepared and rusty. He appeared frustrated by being there. He failed to effectively paint Romney as elite and out of touch. He never used his greatest weapon: Romney's "47 percent" video that dismissed nearly half of all Americans for their reliance on government.
Obama had no answer to Romney's attack on green energy subsidies, including the dubious handouts to Solyndra. In fact, that exchange led to one of Romney's best quips about the president, "You don't just pick the winners and losers, you just pick the losers."
When he had the opportunity to pounce on Romney and ask which specific loopholes and deductions Romney would like to get rid of in his plan to address taxes, Obama froze.
By the time the president's claim that Romney's tax cuts would add $3 trillion to the debt was effectively refuted, Obama was out of rhetorical ammunition and floundered through the rest ofthe debate indirectly blaming George W. Bush for America's economic woes, while failing to defend his own policies.
The president's only real success was offsetting Romney's criticism of Obamacare by correctly framing the argument that Romneycare was, in effect, the forerunner of the president's national healthcare scheme.
Despite his clear victory and Obama's lackluster showing, Romney still had a number of missteps. Given his apparent lack of understanding about the fundamentals of economics and budgeting, however, it's not certain they can be corrected.
For example, when asked what he would trim from the federal budget, Romney named only two of the thousands of line items in the federal budget - Obamacare and subsidies to PBS.
Romney also unwisely took all military cuts off the table. Whether Republicans like to admit it or not, there is probably more waste, fraud, abuse and unnecessary spending in the military budget than in any other area of the federal government.
No matter how valuable it is to pander to the military, it's unwise and unjustifiable to take 20 percent of the federal budget off the table when considering spending cuts.
Worst of all, however, was Romney's unwillingness to defend his tax cut proposals by pointing out that tax cuts rarely reduce government revenues. Obama harped on the ideas that tax cuts would cost government money (in other words, leave more money in taxpayers' pockets). In truth, however, tax cuts typically result in enough economic growth so that more money comes into the government's coffers, despite lower tax rates. Romney complete ignored this economic truth.
Romney's greatest success in the debate was in his defense of American principles. He spoke often - and well - about free markets, competition, incentives and personal responsibility. In this era in which many Americans consider government as a destructive force to individual liberty, the role of the family and the economy in general, the Republican Party presidential candidate needs to be a great defender of these foundational tenets. In this first debate, at least, Romney certainly was.
The point in the debate in which the difference between Obama and Romney became most evident was when they were asked about the role of government. Romney responded by stating, "The role of government is to promote and protect the principles of [the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution]."
Conversely, Obama claimed that, "The first role of the federal government is to keep the American people safe. That's its most basic function" When "protecting people" is the greatest goal of government - rather than defending the liberties of citizens, for example - there is no limit to how large government can grow.
If nothing else, Romney succeeded in making many viewers believe that he understands that government has a proper role with defined limits, while Obama clearly assumes that government should have nearly unlimited power.
5) Mitt Romney said he'd defund PBS and after the Lehrer moderated debate, Obama camp now wants to make it a retroactive cut. - Erick Erickson, editor-in-chief of RedState.com (@EWErickson)
4) I waited til now to watch the first episode of this season's "Boardwalk Empire" so it could be mediocre and still live up. #debate - Doug Stanhope, comedian (@DougStanhope)
3) Big Bird sleeps with the fishes. - Peter Suderman, senior editor at Reason magazine (@petersuderman)
2) Well, I can easily identify one lie in this debate -- PresObama: "You've done a great job, Jim."- Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics (@LarrySabato)
1) Kid asks, "Daddy, do all fairy tales starts out 'Once Upon A Time?'" "No honey" the Dad says. "Some start out 'Once I'm elected.'"#Debate - Gilbert Gottfried, comedian (@RealGilbert)
Best debate line "You're entitled, Mr. President, as the president to your own airplane and your own house, but not to your own facts," - Mitt Romney
Number of sips taken if rules of the Free Press editorial page's "Debate Drinking Game" were followed during the debate: 127
President Obama has the facts on his side and the best policies for advancing prosperity, jobs and secure health care for the broad range of middle-class Americans, but he let Mitt Romney out-punch him - often with below-the-belt hits - 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 general debate performance.
Romney turned out to be more aggressive and cogent in repeating his talking points, though many flipped the facts upside down. He returned repeatedly, for example, to the false claim that Obama's 10-year projection for reining in Medicare spending would "cut" $716 billion from Medicare. In fact, Obama's plan would largely reap those savings by eliminating GOP-legislated Medicare subsidies for private insurers' profit margins on Medicare Part B Advantage and prescription drug policies, and by promoting best-practice efficiencies. 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 would dismantle Medicare for, as he said, younger Americans "under 60."
Obama failed to nail an effective rebuttal, however, allowing Romney to keep pounding that false point. Similarly, he let Romney airbrush his aim to voucherize Medicare; and to hammer the implied premise that Obama's administration was somehow responsible for the consequences - slow job growth, revenue fall-off and deficits - of the historically deep recession that greeted Obama when he took office.
And 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 argument to camouflage his plan for cutting services while extending more tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans, who already got the lion's share of the Bush tax cuts.
Obama did emphasize that Romney's proposed tax plan, as scored by several nonpartisan analsyses, would cost $7 trillion in new debt in the next 10 years - $5 trillion for more 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.
But he didn't seize the stage as aggressively as Romney, nor did he frame his policy prescriptions as pointedly. 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, on the other hand, plowed through debate rules and time limits to assert and intrude his own 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 fiancial reform law, yet said it, too, like Obamacare and environmental rules, needed to be repealed and replaced.
Romeny's most focused arguments 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.