We don’t know why everyone is being so hard on Obama’s debate performance. He did fine. Carry on, Mr. President!
Every famous political debate is coated with myth. Reagan did not in fact trounce Carter in 1980, nor Kennedy Nixon in 1960. But the myths are right too, for a debate — especially when the result is a surprise — can nudge the tectonic plates. The first Obama–Romney debate produced two surprises. Obama, considered by his admirers (including himself) the modern Moses, was listless and dispirited. (Al Gore thought he’d had trouble adjusting to Denver’s elevation, though the U.S. Geological Survey could have warned him ahead of time.) Romney, solid but no barnburner in the long GOP primaries, was bright, quick, dignified, aggressive. Put the two together and — well, if a debate were a title bout, the heavyweight division would have a new champ. Debates are not title bouts: There are two more to come, plus Biden vs. Ryan and October surprises. But maybe, just maybe, pseudo-Moses won’t have to climb many more heights.
Romney responded during the debate to Obama’s charge that he will have to raise middle-class taxes to make up for the tax cuts for the rich he is hell-bent on enacting. If Romney eliminates deductions and breaks, and delivers a tax code that slightly increases economic growth, there will be no need to raise middle-class taxes — and in any case he rules out raising them. Romney noted that the tax reform he seeks cannot rightly be called a large net tax cut, since it would raise the same amount of revenue as the current code. The press then said that Romney had moved to the center by disavowing tax cuts. The substance of his position has not changed at all, though, and conservatives favor an improvement in the tax code however it is described. The benefit of journalists’ self-induced confusion is that they mostly failed to bash Romney for pointing out that Obama’s agenda threatens a large middle-class tax increase to pay for all his spending. Each party is now accusing the other of seeking to raise middle-class taxes. In an even fight, with both sides making their cases, voters are likely to side with the party they know dislikes tax increases, and against the one they know to be enthusiastic about them.
The debate saw President Obama invoke Abraham Lincoln in defense of his economic program, as is his wont. But: One, Obama wants to pretend that he supports only opportunity-enhancing policies on par with the Morrill land-grant colleges, instead of a vast, ever-expanding redistributive welfare state that would have been unimaginable to the 16th president. Two, Obama loves to talk about Lincoln’s support for subsidies for the railroads, but the railroads were, unlike green energy, a genuinely transformative technology with immediate, practical application. (Even so, the subsidies fed corruption and waste.) Finally, the economic gospel of Lincoln was work and self-reliance: “Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another; but let him labor diligently and build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built.” President Obama’s cheap, economically illiterate populism would have been anathema to him. Besides, Lincoln admired people capable of defending themselves in debate.
As the presidential race enters its final weeks, Romney has begun making the case that his agenda would serve voters’ interests in stronger economic growth, cheaper energy, lower taxes, and affordable health care — the case we have been urging him to make for some time. He has not yet devised an answer, however, to President Obama’s claim that he would return the country to the policies of George W. Bush, which are still widely seen as a failure notwithstanding the respect many Americans have for him. Romney’s rhetoric has sometimes aided Obama’s strategy: By implying that Obama’s policies are responsible for all that ails the country, he also implies that everything was fine before he took office. Better, we think, for Romney to acknowledge that many of the country’s institutions — its health-care system, tax code, and entitlements, to name three — have been growing creakier since before Obama took office; to say that Obama deserves blame for either not addressing their problems or making them worse, rather than for creating them; and to promise that as president he will tackle them. That argument would be more plausible than a simple-minded partisan one; it would enable Romney to separate himself from Bush without explicitly repudiating him; and it represents what Romney probably believes. In this case, at least, let Romney be Romney.