Scanning the fallout from Wednesday night’s “domestic issues” Presidential debate, a few things are incredibly clear: Most political pundits, conservative and liberal, agree that Mitt Romney made President Barack Obama look like a badly prepared college debate team contestant; Jim Lehrer, veteran journalist or not, did a poor job of steering the debate to meaningful topics; and for those voters who believe Obama and Romney are too much alike, nothing has changed.
The candidates spent the bulk of the 90-minute debate attempting to portray one another as bad for middle-class voters, with Romney calling Obama a purveyor of “trickle-down government” and Obama accusing the challenger of being an advocate only for the richest Americans. One of Romney’s key strengths throughout the event was his ability to focus with vigor on Obama failed policies and the incumbent’s Presidential record, which has yet to receive heavy doses of media scrutiny in the campaign.
In discussing deficit reduction, Romney pointed out one of the President’s most indefensible weaknesses: “You’ve had four years. You said you’d cut the deficit in half. It’s now four years later. We still have trillion-dollar deficits. You found $4 trillion to reduce or to get closer to a balanced budget, except we still show trillion-dollar deficits every year. That doesn’t get the job done.”
Obama subsequently doubled down on a claim that the $4 trillion in cuts proposed by his Administration are both relevant and paid for by a balanced plan of taxing only the most successful Americans.
In any case, most fact-checkers agree that $4 trillion in spending cuts is a lofty goal under the Obama plan, as ABC’s Jon Karl explains in a fact-check column calling the President’s claim “mostly fiction”:
Does President Obama have a plan to cut the deficit by $4 trillion?
No. The “$4 trillion plan” he is referring to includes about $1 trillion Congress has already agreed to and $1 trillion in savings from ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are already ending.
This would be Mostly Fiction.
Romney’s deficit-reduction plan, however, is also not exactly expected to leave middle-class taxpayers unscathed. The candidate reiterated several times throughout the debate that he plans to tack on additional military spending if elected, which would be somewhere around $2 trillion in extra government spending while at the same time keeping Americans’ taxes from rising.
Romney offered no specifics throughout the debate regarding his yet-to-be-released tax plan, except to refute a claim made by Obama that it contained proposals for about $5 trillion in tax cuts.
“We ought to apply tax relief to people in the middle class, but I’m not going to reduce the share of taxes paid by high-income people,” Romney said. “I’m not looking to cut massive taxes.”
But Romney, despite his magnificent debate performance, offered voters little information on where specifically he plans to make cuts to government spending — except for when he mentioned that, although he likes Big Bird, he plans to cut government funding of public television.
Other cuts would be made by a formula Romney outlined: “First of all, I will eliminate all programs by this test, if they don’t pass it: Is the program so critical it’s worth borrowing money from China to pay for it? And if not, I’ll get rid of it. … No. 2, I’ll take programs that are currently good programs but I think could be run more efficiently at the state level and send them to the state. No. 3, I’ll make government more efficient and to cut back the number of employees, combine some agencies and departments.”
Debate moderator Lehrer, while unable to get the candidates to answer questions specifically or stay within their allotted time, went to great pains to highlight the idea that Romney and Obama are two very different candidates. And while superficially Obama and Romney played the parts of helping government all the way as opposed to emboldening the private sector, each spouted rhetoric that leaves little hope for smaller government regardless of the election’s outcome.
Obama applauded himself for spending the amount of time he did during the initial years of his Administration ramming his healthcare bill down America’s throat, and Romney assured fellow moderates that he would not do away with the entire plan.
Discussing Obamacare was not the only moment when Romney renounced some of the self-described “severely conservative” ideas he pretended to have throughout the Republican primary season. In fact, some pundits have suggested that Romney’s sudden burst of moderate vigor could have been partially to blame for the confusion that Obama seemed to exhibit throughout the debate. For instance, following an Obama narrative that too much regulation was never the problem leading up to the collapse on Wall Street, Romney all but agreed. In discussing Dodd-Frank, which he had harshly criticized in debates against other Republican candidates, Romney changed his tune on Wednesday to embrace the regulations but called for them to be made more clear by the government.
So, while liberal commentators’ (like MSNBC’s Chris Mathews) heads looked as if they were going to explode as they discussed Obama’s poor performance Wednesday night, and conservative outlets like Fox published jovial “the conservatives are winning” headlines on Thursday, many people still remain unconvinced that there is much difference between the two men.
Perhaps there is only one way to find out for sure: Is anyone ready to see Libertarian Gary Johnson debate alongside the two?