I am writing this on Tuesday night, right after the second presidential debate. So this will be just a first impression. Two weeks ago, Mitt Romney was judged by most commentators to have been successful in the first debate. Since then his poll numbers have gone up, nearly reaching parity with President Obama.
So Romney tried to do the same thing in this debate – engage Obama directly, look energetic and glad to be in front of the TV cameras, repeat the talking points he has developed over the past few months. Obama has been heavily criticized for his performance two weeks ago, so he came out much more aggressively, looking into the camera more, smiling occasionally, and being much more directly critical of Romney’s positions and his words.
The debate format, which encouraged the candidates to walk around rather than stand behind a odium, worked in favor of a more energetic Obama. Right after the first debate the TV talking heads discussed each candidate’s “performance”. How much energy did they display? Who had the best lines? Who looked more comfortable?
Missing was any serious attention to what Romney and Obama actually said. Unlike campaign rallies, speeches to donors, or interviews with friendly journalists, in the debate candidates lose control of the dialogue. They are contradicted and called untruthful. Evidence they don’t want to deal with is thrown in their faces. The unique town hall format of Tuesday’s debate introduced even more uncertainty, because voters asked their own questions.
Much more important than the debaters’ demeanor is what they say. Instead of focusing on the way the candidates looked in the first debate, the highly paid commentators should have analyzed substance. It was important that Romney repeated his charge that Obamacare will reduce medical benefits paid to Americans by $716 billion, even though independent fact-checkers have shown that to be untruthful months ago.
It was important that Obama insisted that Romney was proposing a $5 trillion tax cut, when Romney had been saying for months that he seeks tax reform that is revenue neutral.
So what did Obama and Romney say in this debate that is worth paying attention to? What did the candidates say that could help a voter choose between the differing policy visions of Democrats and Republicans?
I think the many untruthful claims that Romney made were the most notable feature of this debate, because he got called out on most of them.
Romney’s first statement was that he would “make sure we keep our Pell grant program going”. But he means, according to his published education plan, to “refocus Pell Grant dollars on the students that need them most”, which means cutting. Paul Ryan’s House budget would severely cut the Pell grant program. Obama has increased the total money in Pell grants, and intends to continue that support.
When Romney said that Obama and his administration did not call the attack on the Benghazi consulate an act of terrorism for “many days”, Obama corrected him, noting he had said it was terrorism the very next day. Romney refused to believe that, but Candy Crowley, the strong moderator, assured use that this was true.
In answer to a question about getting assault rifles off the streets, Romney said that assault rifles were already illegal, which is not true. Then he said he would oppose any new gun legislation. Obama was somewhat vague, but said he supported a ban on assault weapons.
Romney said that health insurance premiums have gone up $2500,
but the Labor Department says that the average American household pays about $270 more.
Romney said that the program “Fast and Furious” gave guns “to people that ultimately gave them to drug lords”. But no guns were given at all. Government agents allowed guns to be bought without intervening, a terrible idea, but not at all what Romney claimed.
Romney said he didn’t support the harsh new Arizona immigration laws, but his immigration advisor wrote them.
Romney said that oil “production on government land is down”, as an attempt to paint Obama as insincere about increasing production. But in fact oil production on government land has increased since 2011.
All Romney could point to was that oil and gas leases have been reduced under Obama, which the President succinctly explained as terminating leases that were not being used at all.
I counted at least eight times that Romney said, “I know what it takes” to balance budgets, to create jobs to make our economy work. Maybe, but he hasn’t told the truth to us about how that might work.
He avoided saying how he would deal with the long-term unemployed, although Republicans in Congress voted against extending their unemployment payments. He offered nothing to a woman who asked about gender inequality in pay, although Republicans voted against the Lilly Ledbetter Act to help women equalize pay.
Forget how they looked or whether they were aggressive enough. What they said and didn’t say was the crucial thing. Romney was unable to present his ideas without being misleading or untruthful. That’s significant.
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