10/17/2012 10:36 am ET Updated Dec 17, 2012

Empty Suit

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master, that's all."

-- Lewis Carroll

"Well of course they add up. I was- I was someone who ran businesses for 25 years and balanced the budget." -- Mitt Romney.

This was the debate that finally exposed Mitt Romney as an empty suit running a campaign that is disingenuous at its core. The president exposed to millions of Americans just how hollow Romney's claims are.

On the Budget

Romney wants voters to believe that he can lower tax rates for all, cut taxes on the middle class, raise spending on the military and bring the budget into balance. He can do this by closing unspecified loopholes and cutting unspecified spending -- but without damaging anything Americans care about -- the mortgage deduction, the child's tax credit or spending on Pell grants and student loans, education and research and development. Nothing, as the president said, except Planned Parenthood and big bird. As a successful investor, said the president, Romney wouldn't buy this kind of "sketchy deal."

Romney's flim flam was finally exposed. How can he do this? Because he is the master. "Of course" the figures add up. "I was a businessman." He decides what adds up by assertion, not addition.

On Jobs

Romney claims a five-point plan (a retread, as Mike Konzcal has pointed out, of the same five points peddled by George W. Bush and by Republicans since Reagan) that "gets America 12 million new jobs in four years and rising take-home pay." There is no study in the reality-based world -- not even the lone study the Romney campaign refers to -- that can divine that result from Romney's plan. How does he get there?

He gets there by assertion; "I know what it takes to create good jobs again." In the debate, this became his mantra. "I want to help small businesses grow and thrive. I know how to make that happen. I spent my life in the private sector. I know why jobs come and why they go." And again on equal pay: "I know what it takes to make an economy work. And I know what a working economy looks like."

The Romney campaign is placing ads across the country showing Romney looking into the camera and ticking off how many jobs come from each element of his five-point plan. All of it supported by pure assertion. This takes both savvy and gall. He appears so confident in the knowledge he touts that the press finds it easy to bring the hammer down on a misstated fact, but is hesitant about exposing the big lie.

Obama did a good job in the debate at exposing the sham. Romney doesn't have a five point plan, he said, he's got a "one point plan," which basically is to favor the wealthy.

The Final Exposure

The answers to the last question -- the closing arguments -- were revealing for both candidates.
Asked what misperception about him he most wanted to correct, Romney exposed his glass jaw, bringing up implicitly his disdainful words about the 47 percent who "don't take responsibility for their lives," and consider themselves "victims." Trust me, he said:

I care about a hundred percent of the American people. I want a hundred percent of the American people to have a bright and prosperous future. I care about our kids. I understand what it takes to -- to make a bright and prosperous future for America again. I -- I spent my life in the private sector, not in government. I'm a guy who wants to help, with the experience I have, the American people.

Don't listen to what I said when I thought I was off camera. Don't look at my agenda. Trust me. "I understand what it takes." The words mean what I say they mean.

Obama didn't pass up the opening, clobbering Romney by listing those slurred when Romney said,

... behind closed doors that 47 percent of the country considers themselves victims who refuse personal responsibility... folks on Social Security who've worked all their lives, veterans who've sacrificed for this country, students who are out there trying to, hopefully, advance their own dreams, but also this country's dreams, soldiers who are overseas fighting for us right now, people who are working hard every day, paying payroll tax, gas taxes, but don't make enough income.

And I want to fight for them. That's what I've been doing for the last four years, because if they succeed, I believe the country succeeds.

But Obama didn't end where he started. He began the debate by ticking off an agenda for the future: promoting manufacturing, creating good schools, capturing the energy future and asking the wealthy to pay a bit more.

Much more of this -- and much bolder policies -- are vital both for the country and for his reelection. Obama is vulnerable because the economy is in such lousy shape. His campaign has been weakened by its apparent strategic decision not to seek a mandate for bold policies that will work to make this economy work for working people again. Instead the president has seemed intent on trying to sell the progress we've made, while exposing how Romney would take the country in the wrong direction.

The president succeeded last night -- as his campaign has effectively done earlier -- in revealing just how empty a suit Romney is. This Bain candidate is of, for and by the 1%. Romney's five points are more put-on than plan. But people are looking for change. Romney wants voters to decide if they want more of the same. If they vote on that, he'll have the edge. Obama must make this a choice between Romney's wrong-headed agenda and a mandate for bold reform. The president's campaign has done a good job of exposing Romney, but has done far too little to define and demand a mandate for the change vital to our future.