Mitt Romney was on offense. President Obama was on defense. And when you’re on offense in a presidential debate—and aren’t mean-spirited or harsh—you prevail. Which Romney did in a 90-minute performance that I suspect even some of his advisers didn’t know he was capable of.
He was so brimming with numbers, details, and facts on issue after issue that he blew away the president’s biggest talking point: that Romney was ominously keeping the components of his tax, health care, and budget plans from the American people. This was a pretty weak theme to begin with, but that didn’t stop Obama was emphasizing it with little effect.
This was a different Romney, but the same old Obama. Romney is an energetic campaigner, but never as commanding as he was in the debate. He never let an issue drop if he had more to say on it. He turned nearly every charge by Obama to his advantage. To put it simply, he fired every gun in his arsenal and, politically speaking, scored hits more often than not.
This was the calm, unruffled Obama that we’ve seen before. But the points he made were old hat. He’s for a “balanced approach” to cutting the deficit. He wants the rich to pay just a tad more. We’ve been hearing this stuff forever. It’s a message that’s gotten tired and Obama was plodding, even boring, in repeating it.
Romney said things that were new, at least for him. And he seemed excited about saying them. Looking at moderator Jim Lehrer, of the Public Broadcasting System, he said: “I will stop the (government) subsidy to PBS. I like PBS. I like Big Bird. I cannot keep spending money to borrow from China to pay for it.”
He had no zingers, but he got off some pretty good digs at Obama. He quoted a friend as saying that in Obama’s subsidies for green energy companies, the president doesn’t pick winners and losers. He just picks losers. And Romney named a few. He accused Obama of pursuing an economic policy of “trickle down government” that hasn’t worked. His proof was 23 million Americans without jobs, working only part-time or having dropped out of the jobs market, an increase in food stamp recipients from 32 million to 47 million, and half the college graduates this year unable to find jobs.
If you recall Obama’s idealistic rhetoric that stirred tens of millions of Americans in 2008 – it’s gone. Perhaps that’s because he has a weak record to defend, and it doesn’t provide much opportunity for soaring. In any case, we heard none of it in the debate.
It oversimplifies what went on last night to say that Romney won on taxes, the deficit, and Obamacare, but he did. He also did a better job than Obama in explaining economic issues. At times, Romney offered something of a tutorial as he outlined how cutting tax rates will cause more economic growth, create jobs, and generate more tax revenues.
Obama had one good issue: Medicare reform. His criticism of Romney’s plan for reforming Medicare was effective. He called it a voucher plan, though it’s not quite that. Meanwhile, Romney hammered Obama for taking $716 billion out of Medicare to pay for Obamacare.
So what did we learn from the first of three nationally televised debates? A few things: The presidential race is anything but over, the pressure is now on the president to rebound in the second debate, and Obama needs to come up with some fresh material against Romney or at least put some zip into his old attacks.
One more thing. This was the best night of Romney’s bid for the presidency and that includes his 2008 campaign as well. The media thinks he’s a walking gaffe machine, but he made no gaffes in the debate. His performance was as good as Walter Mondale’s in the first debate against President Reagan in 1984. The triumph on one night by Mondale led nowhere. He lost 49 states on Election Day. Romney needs to keep in mind that victory in one debate and victory on November 6 are two different things.