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Presidential Debate: Obama Takes a Dive

10/04/2012 09:21 am ET | Updated Dec 03, 2012

Mitt Romney had two simple jobs in the first presidential debate. First, he had to be the defender and not the privatizer of Social Security and Medicare. Second, he had to be the candidate of the middle class rather than of the rich. He'd dug himself a big hole with the kind of statements that appeared in the leaked video that had him claiming that 47% of Americans are dependent on government, and with running-mate Paul Ryan's obsessive variations on his theme of how America's makers are burdened by its takers. Romney also had to be for things that women voters favor, like public education, although, as I pointed out in the Chronicle of Higher Education, his world doesn't need it.

On the other side, Barack Obama had to cement his small lead as the sane, moderate candidate whose genuine great strength is that he doesn't have contempt for most Americans, especially those whose everyday life is a constant struggle. He had to show Gov. Romney to be an extremist who will cut taxes for the rich and make the declining middle class pay for them with the mortgage check they would have given to the bank if the bank hadn't taken away their house, and then cut Medicare and give that to the wealthy too. He had to challenge Romney's credentials as a pragmatist businessman who was simply going to do what works.

Gov. Romney couldn't have counted on what happened October 3rd, which was President Obama freezing and folding, allowing Romney to pose endlessly as the friend of retiree and worker alike. When moderater Jim Lehrer asked him for his views on "entitlements," Romney replied (from the NPR transcript):

Well, Jim, our seniors depend on these programs. And I know any time we talk about entitlements, people become concerned that something's going to happen that's going to change their life for the worst, and the answer is, neither the president nor I are proposing any changes for any current retirees or near retirees, either to Social Security or Medicare. So if you're 60 or around 60 or older, you don't need to listen any further.

But for younger people, we need to talk about what changes are going to be occurring.

Oh, I just thought about one, and that is in fact I was wrong when I said the president isn't proposing any changes for current retirees. In fact, he is on Medicare. On Social Security, he's not.

But on Medicare, for current retirees he's cutting $716 billion from the program. . . .

Romney went on to use the figure $716 billion another 4 times in this first response, and a further five times overall, culminating with this passage in his final statement:

If the president were to be re-elected, you're going to see a $716 billion cut to Medicare. You'll have 4 million people who will lose Medicare advantage. You'll have hospitals and providers that'll no longer accept Medicare patients.

I'll restore that $716 billion to Medicare.

In other words, the great believer in Medicare is not Barack Obama but Mitt Romney!

President Obama's response: exactly zero references to this figure or the general issue. He began his response like this:

First of all, I think it's important for Governor Romney to present this plan that he says will only affect folks in the future. And the essence of the plan is that he would turn Medicare into a voucher program. It's called premium support, but it's understood to be a voucher program.

The president got interrupted. Then he went on for a long time using phrases like "now in fairness" and qualified his objections. Romney's number stuck, from start to finish, and it's out there now, already being made into endless TV ads about the Romney-Ryan vision for preserving Medicare and Social Security for seniors today and tomorrow.

On Social Security: Moderator Lehrer said, "First answer goes to you. It's two minutes. Mr. President, do you see a major difference between the two of you on Social Security?" President Obama replied,

You know, I suspect that on Social Security, we've got a somewhat similar position. Social Security is structurally sound. It's going to have to be tweaked the way it was by Ronald Reagan and Speaker -- Democratic Speaker Tip O'Neill. But it is -- the basic structure is sound. But -- but I want to talk about the values behind Social Security and Medicare and then talk about Medicare, because that's the big driver --

In other words, the Democratic president said that Social Security was saved by the bipartisan teamwork of Ronald Reagan, although Reagan equated it and Me. And he and the Great Privatizers Romney-Ryan largely agree.

On the economy--the inequality boom, plutocracy, outsourcing, and the dramatic decline of the middle class--Obama had to blame Romney banksters and say he did the best Republicans would let him to clean up their mess. He had to say a word or two about their deregulation of banks, their foreclosure crisis, lopsided tax cuts expanding the deficit, onesided bailouts, and the public funding crisis for K-12 schools and for higher education. At the very least, he had to avoid getting blamed for these things himself.

Romney opened on energy independence, better job training and schools, more support for small business, etc. And then:

The president has a view very similar to the view he had when he ran four years ago, that a bigger government, spending more, taxing more, regulating more -- if you will, trickle-down government would work. That's not the right answer for America. I'll restore the vitality that gets America working again.

This is Republican mirror-world propaganda at its best. Take a charge leveled at plutocratic tax-cuts for the rich that never delivered, ever, on their promises of growth, extract the key phrase, and pivot it 180 degrees against government. Nice move. How will President Obama respond?

By echoing exactly what Romney has just proposed.

First, we've got to improve our education system. And we've made enormous progress drawing on ideas both from Democrats and Republicans that are already starting to show gains in some of the toughest-to- deal-with schools.

So for the Democratic ticket there's nothing wrong with union-busting, privatizing, testing-not-teaching Republican education policy, which indeed the Obama Administration has in large part adopted in Race to the Top--and which is Republican enough for Romney to in fact pat on the back a little bit later.

OK, so maybe Mr. Obama is just lulling Mr. Romney into complacency with a debating style that looks a lot like that of someone who has never seen a debate, much less been in one. He's about to denounce Republican class war of the 0.01% against working America, any second. Here he goes:

When it comes to our tax code, Governor Romney and I both agree that our corporate tax rate is too high. So I want to lower it, particularly for manufacturing, taking it down to 25 percent.

The two are so in harmony it's too bad the president can't be on the ticket with his Republican challenger.

"Now in fairness," as the president would say, he does offer a modest qualifier:

But I also want to close those loopholes that are giving incentives for companies that are shipping jobs overseas. I want to provide tax breaks for companies that are investing here in the United States.

But he completely blew the chance to differentiate the Democrats as the party that realizes that corporate taxes are one third as a share of GDP of what they were in 1950, and yet the Republicans treat them as America's most oppressed class--right after billionaires and deca-millionaires.

Ok, well President Obama did say this a little latter:

And this is where there's a difference because Governor Romney's central economic plan calls for a $5 trillion tax cut, on top of the extension of the Bush tax cuts, so that's another $2 trillion, and $2 trillion in additional military spending that the military hasn't asked for. That's $8 trillion. How we pay for that, reduce the deficit and make the investments that we need to make without dumping those costs on the middle-class Americans I think is one of the central questions of this campaign.

A minute later, Gov Romney just denies it, and after he celebrates fossil fuel extraction as a future American jobs program, he flatly denies the core tax positions of his campaign:

And finally, with regards to that tax cut, look, I'm not looking to cut massive taxes and to reduce the -- the revenues going to the government. My -- my number one principle is there'll be no tax cut that adds to the deficit.

I want to underline that -- no tax cut that adds to the deficit. But I do want to reduce the burden being paid by middle-income Americans.

This is about a day after he proposed cutting the mortgage deduction that is the central tax benefit for that huge majority of Americans whose main wealth is their house.

Americans who don't carefully follow economics or have strong party affiliations would have a hard time telling who was the pro-middle class candidate. And forget the poor, the working-class, the unemployed - they don't exist. Actually, the word "unemployment" was used three times -- all by Mr. Romney.

On a major issue for the "independent" women that both parties court, here are the two statements. First:

when it comes to education, what I've said is we've got to reform schools that are not working. . . . What I've also said is let's hire another hundred thousand math and science teachers to make sure we maintain our technological lead and our people are skilled and able to succeed.

And second:

Well, first, I love great schools. . . . And the key to great schools: great teachers. So I reject the idea that I don't believe in great teachers or more teachers. Every school district, every state should make that decision on their own.

As you'd expect by now, the lover of great teachers is Mitt Romney. The incentivizer of reform is Barack Obama.

Pick your issue: Romney hugged a soft-Democrat, Obama hugged him back. Romney pounded him. It was rope-a-dope, except I was having flashbacks to Jimmy Carter losing to Ronald Reagan in the October 28, 1980 debate in which Carter in fact did pretty well.

Another example, bipartisanship. Here's Tweedle One

As president, I will sit down on day one -- actually the day after I get elected, I'll sit down with leaders -- the Democratic leaders as well as Republican leaders . . . We have to work on a collaborative basis -- not because we're going to compromise our principle(s), but because there's common ground.

And Tweedle Two:

My philosophy has been I will take ideas from anybody, Democrat or Republican, as long as they're advancing the cause of making middle-class families stronger and giving ladders of opportunity into the middle class. That's how we cut taxes for middle-class families and small businesses. That's how we cut a trillion dollars of spending that wasn't advancing that cause. That's how we signed three trade deals into law that are helping us to double our exports and sell more American products around the world.

One is Romney, Two is Obama. But you get the point.

"Now in fairness," Obama did try to say twice that the public sector is more efficient than the private sector at providing two general goods--low-cost student loans and medical care. On employment, the fate of college graduates, public educational funding, housing, immigration, the default was a duel between two hodge-podges of some government plus low taxes. You would have no idea of how seriously dysfunctional the current economic-governmental mashup is for so many people. Romney scored on that. Both candidates are out of touch, and they modeled the complicity between the two main parties in which they collect the spoils by propping each other up.

Obviously the strategy in the debates is "move to the middle" and don't scare fence-sitters in the swing states. But that doesn't mean confusing the heck out of them about whether you're different from the other guy. This was President Obama's main achievement. Real solutions to our major problems seem farther off than ever.