10/14/2012 11:04 pm ET Updated Dec 14, 2012

Muddled Ideology, Muddled Debate

The nation's pundits have had a fine week, psychoanalyzing President Obama's dismal performance in the first debate and Joe Biden's effective if a bit over-the-top counter-punching in his match with Paul Ryan.

Maureen Dowd had it about right when she wrote that "Because Obama doesn't relish confrontation, he often fails to pin his opponents on the mat the first time he gets the chance; instead, perversely, he pulls back and allows foes to gain oxygen." Ouch.

But the psycho-biography school, fascinating as it is, mostly misses the point.

Romney and Obama have each muddled their views -- but Romney does it in a way that helps him, while Obama's muddling helps the Republicans. Let me explain.

Romney began as an old-fashioned moderate Republican, then had to reinvent himself to win the support of his party's rightwing base. And then in the general election, he feinted back towards the center but without disavowing his new-found conservatism.

So he is now trying to be all things to all people. He will cut everyone's taxes by 20 percent (conservative) but by some alchemy this will neither leave the rich paying less, nor cut social outlays, nor increase the deficit (moderate).

Similarly, he will "save" Social Security and Medicare by reforming their finances (moderate); he will offer private alternatives such as vouchers or private accounts (conservative), but no "current retiree" will lose any benefits and younger people can choose between traditional social programs and more privatized ones (moderate).

Now all of this is, in Joe Biden's term, malarkey. The arithmetic is fake. But neither Obama nor even the more truculent Biden quite managed to nail Romney-Ryan, either on the plain budgetary deceptions or on the political fact that they would cut outlays that benefit the broad public in order to shovel more benefits to billionaires.

Why not? Three reasons.

First is the characterological part. Even after nearly four years of merciless pummeling by obstructionist Republicans, Obama is just not comfortable punching back. Dowd explains that part as well as anyone.

Second is the wonk problem. A lot Romney's lies involve manipulations with statistics. For instance, it is not possible to cut everyone's taxes by 20 percent without increasing the deficit, cutting valued programs, or giving the rich a tax-break -- or all three. There are just not enough loopholes to close to make up for $5 trillion dollars in new tax cuts. But Obama seems to have trouble offering straightforward rebuttal without descending into wonkery that leaves the audience unclear whose numbers to believe. This is not a function of the topic but of the president's own weak performance. The stuff isn't that inherently complex in the hands of an effective politician.

But the most important weakness is the Democrats own ideological muddle.

For instance, if Obama drew a bright line that Democrats will not under any circumstances cut Social Security or Medicare benefits, he would be offering a much clearer story and would have an easier time putting Romney on the defensive.

However, that is not the Obama position. The point where I wanted to throw the TV out the window was when Jim Lehrer tossed the president a nice softball to blast out of the park.

MR. LEHRER: Mr. President, do you see a major difference between the two of you on Social Security?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: 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 Democratic Speaker Tip O'Neill.

You remember that tweak. They raised payroll taxes, cut benefits and raised the retirement age by two years. This is what Obama is embracing?

The right answer to that question was:

You bet there are major differences. The Republicans have been trying for years to privatize Social Security, and I won't let that happen. We are not going to cut benefits, either for today's retirees or for younger Americans who will need Social Security to be there when they retire. And if corporations were paying decent wages instead of moving jobs overseas, and Republicans stopped blocking my recovery program, there would be more payroll tax receipts coming into the Social Security trust funds and the program would be solvent forever.

The problem here is not a lack of debating skills. Obama has been persuaded by the likes of Erskine Bowles, Alan Simpson, Pete Peterson, Peter Orszag and company that cuts in Social Security will have to be part of a grand budget bargain. That's why he won't draw a clear, bright line.

Vice President Biden, who turned in a better debate performance than his boss, tripped over the same muddled ideology. This time it was Martha Raddatz who tossed the softball:

MS. RADDATZ: Vice President Biden, let me ask you, if it could help solve the problem, why not very slowly raise the Medicare eligibility age by two years, as Congressman Ryan suggests?

VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: Look, I was there when we did that with Social Security, in 1983. I was one of eight people sitting in the room that included Tip O'Neill negotiating with President Reagan. We all got together, and everybody said, as long as everybody's in the deal, everybody's in the deal, and everybody is making some sacrifice, we can find a way. We made the system solvent to 2033... We will not, though, be part of any voucher plan

Arggh! The right answer to that was:

We will not raise the eligibility age because people between 65 and 67 have a terrible time finding insurance they can afford on the private market. That's the difference between the two parties.

Once again, the Obama-Biden ticket refuses to rule out raising the Medicare eligibility age because of the same influence of the deficit hawks.

So instead of a straight liberal-conservative debate that a liberal could win--because these programs are highly valued and Republicans keep undermining them--we have a debate with one muddled liberal and two conservatives: the Romney-Ryan ticket and the Bowles-Simpson ticket, and the latter ticket has infected Obama-Biden.

The first brand of conservative would destroy social insurance in the name of market competition. The second would undercut it for the sake of budget balance: a distinction without a difference.

A metaphor: I have a friend who is a couples therapist. She often finds herself asking clients: how many people are in this bed? There seems to be a former lover in the bed, as well as somebody's mother, and the intruder interferes with the work that the couple needs to do.

Who is that in the Democrats' bed? Why, it's Pete Peterson. Or maybe its Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson.

Bowles and Simpson need to vacate the Democrats' bed, so that Obama can go one on one with Romney.

I expect that Obama will be better rested, better prepared, and more willing to criticize Romney this time. After all, only his presidency is riding on his performance. He will do even better if he is clearer about what he and the Democrats stand for.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos. His latest book is A Presidency in Peril.