10/05/2012 04:20 pm ET Updated Dec 05, 2012

Romney Repeals Romney

Both presidential candidates went to the University of Denver on Wednesday night. President Obama went there to debate Mitt Romney. Romney went there to debate...


All the pundits pronounced Romney the so-called winner.

The liberals on MSNBC were apoplectic at the president. Ed Schultz repeatedly bemoaned the president's failure to come at the former Massachusetts governor, whether on the issue of privatizing Social Security (which Romney has been for), or cutting Medicare (which Obama did not really do and which, in any case, Romney in fact does), or obstruction (which the GOP practices with Prussian-like discipline in Congress), or just being preternaturally out of touch (as evidenced by Romney's 47%-are-dependent claim). Chris Matthews said there was no "Bobby Kennedy" in the president (Matthews remarked that before the first JFK-Nixon debate in 1960, Bobby told Jack to "kick him in the balls"). And Rachel Maddow noted the total absence, in a debate billed as one on "domestic policy," of conversation on a host of domestic issues where Romney is weak -- abortion, reproductive rights, environmental policy.

While, of course, the left was exasperated, the right was ecstatic. For the first time in the fall campaign, they thought they had something to crow about. And crow they did, in typical fashion. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani was his old obnoxious self, pronouncing Romney's ostensible victory "devastating" on the one hand, while insulting the President as "befuddled," "surprised" and "looking for a teleprompter" on the other. Having gone ad hominem (the Mayor calls it "ad personam" but needs to brush up on his Catholic school Latin) on the president, there was rich hypocrisy in the air when he blasted Chris Hayes for asking whether money from Homeland Security to Giuliani himself amounted to exactly the sort of "feeding the [government} beast" for which Giuliani derides the administration. Rudy denied he ever had any Homeland Security contracts, but that was mere wordsmithing. His firm, Giuliani Partners, has made millions advising firms that themselves have millions in Homeland Security contracts.

In any case, the right thinks Romney triumphed, the left thinks Obama fell asleep.

And they're both wrong.

Here's why.

When all the dust settles, the long term story on Wednesday's debate will be Romney's debate with himself. On issue after issue, the former Governor was an act of re-invention of self in progress. If Obama seemed befuddled, I can't blame him. I was a little bit befuddled too -- at, yes, the sheer audacity of Romney's effort at self-redefinition, but mostly at the unrecognizable story now being told. On issue after issue, a new Romney emerged. When his campaign manager told us last spring that general elections present a veritable "etch-a-sketch" moment to wipe the old slate clean, he was not kidding.

Because for Romney, this was an "etch-a-sketch" debate.

On taxes, Romney has for the past eighteen months told us that he plans to cut federal income taxes across the board by 20 percent. By simple math (Bill Clinton's vaunted "arithmetic" in Charlotte last month), that adds up to (1) a $5 trillion dollar cut that (2) disproportionately favors the wealthy. Last night, however, Romney said, "I don't have a $5 trillion tax cut." He then followed up with "I'm not going to reduce the share of taxes paid by high-income people." Both statements are false. The first is flagrantly so. A 20 percent "across the board" cut in rates equals $5 trillion no matter who is counting, but all the GOP nominee was banking on is the notion that those 40 million watching the debate would not realize Wednesday's Romney was at total war with Tuesday's.

As to the second, it is likely to turn out to be a gross distortion as well. While the "share" paid by high-incomers could stay the same even if cuts are passed, Romney has told us his tax cut will be "revenue neutral" and will not increase the deficit. The money to fund the cut, therefore, has to come from either spending cuts, closing loopholes or eliminating deductions. He hasn't identified loopholes and his base will oppose eliminating the big money deductions (in the day leading up to the debate, he floated the idea of capping deductions at a certain amount, but last night he just invited us to "pick any number" for that amount; apparently he hasn't polled yet on which number will be least offensive to voters). So, really, spending cuts it is, and since he wants to raise defense spending and swears he won't cut Medicare, the reductions have to come from everywhere else -- food stamps, public housing, student loans, education, basic research, etc.

Most of which does not benefit the rich.

But all of which benefits the middle and lower middle classes, and the poor.

And all of which, taken together, would still not be sufficient to fund his tax cut without increasing the deficit.

Reinvention continued on health care. For the entire campaign, we have been told that a President Romney will repeal Obamacare "on day one." He routinely decries the individual mandate (even though he passed one in Massachusetts). Now he says that he will not repeal all of Obamacare, promising to retain those parts of the law which forbid insurance companies from excluding applicants based on pre-existing conditions and allow parents to continue to cover kids until the kids turn 26. At the same time, he (1) proposes to allow the states to create their own plans to bring the costs of health care down, (2) guarantees Medicare will not change for those 55 and older, and (3) wants to voucherize Medicare for those who are younger.

These are circles that cannot be squared.

If, in fact, Romney repeals the individual mandate while retaining the ban on exclusions for pre-existing conditions and the parental coverage extension, insurance premiums will sky-rocket and no one will be able to afford policies. The only reason companies can accept the ban and the extension is that the mandate guarantees them millions of additional customers, many of whom will be perfectly healthy and thus premium paying non-users. That, moreover, is the essence of insurance. You create a pool and then spread the risk. The larger the pool, the larger the spread, the lower the individual cost.

The notion that states on their own can manage this problem is sheer nonsense. While they've been trying for the last 30 years, costs have routinely gone up at rates exceeding inflation and insurance companies have monopolized the individual state markets. In fact, the only state that succeeded in stemming this tide is Romney's Massachusetts, which became the template for Obamacare. In the debate, Romney claimed he wanted to defer to the states, which he praised as "laboratories of democracy," using a phrase he borrowed from the Progressives of yore. He should know, however, that when those state "labs" come up with experiments that work, there's nothing wrong with allowing the rest of us in on the success.

Then there was Romney on Medicare. He falsely accused the president, yet again, of cutting $716 billion from the program (even though his own program does exactly that). What Obama in fact did, however, was cut payments to insurance companies -- the middle men -- so that the money could be re-directed to benefits. Next up was the claim that Romney would preserve the program for seniors (or those close) who now have it, but voucherize it for the young, the latter of which is a bad idea he hopes the young won't notice. Romney glibly asserted that his privatized Medicare world would be one where citizens could choose Medicare over private insurance, but he knows that sort of competition will be entirely illusory. Instead, the well off will use their vouchers to supplement their own payments and buy high end insurance, while the less well off will be left with Medicare. In the meantime, nothing will have been done to lower costs, so the pressure on Medicare to cut benefits will be ineluctable and cut they will.

Some might even call it rationing.

By economic class.

On tax cuts and health care, Romney and his seconds think he etch-a-sketched his way to a good night. On others as well, they think he did the same. In the wake of the 2008 financial implosion that effectively caused a lesser Depression, Romney has been for repealing Dodd-Frank, the rather anemic re-regulation passed to combat the worst excesses that led to our recent rendez-vous with 1929. Wednesday night, he changed that to repeal and replace. With what? Who knows. He falsely claimed that Dodd-Frank preserves "too big to fail," but it doesn't. It simply recognizes that certain large institutions are "systemically" critical and therefore have to both satisfy larger capital requirements and come up with appropriate plans (so-called "living wills" in the parlance of the regulators) to reorganize or liquidate in the event of any future imminent collapse. Contra Mitt, Obama was not endorsing "too big to fail." He was simply following "too important to be ignored."

Which would have been nice to see in the last president, or the current GOP nominee, when all hell was breaking loose in 2007 and 2008.

So that was the debate.

Romney v. Romney, really.

One of them had to lose.