The purpose of the presidential debates is to establish contrast between the two candidates. While there’s been near universal consensus that Romney won the first debate, what interests me is less the oratorical contrasts between their two performances and more the ideological contrast: the ideas that were actually put forward by each candidate and to what extent Romney’s were actually stronger.
Before discussing whether/why Romney came out on top, let’s lay out the questions Lehrer asked. I’m not going to cover every one of them, so people who are curious about questions not covered can go back and look at the transcript:
- What are the major differences between the two of you about how you would go about creating new jobs?
- What is the difference? Let’s just stay on taxes.
- What are the differences between the two of you as to how you would go about tackling the deficit problem in this country?
- Governor, what about Simpson-Bowles? Do you support Simpson-Bowles?
- Do you see a major difference between the two of you on Social Security?
- And what about the vouchers?
- What is your view about the level of federal regulation of the economy right now? Is there too much?
- Now, let’s move to health care where I know there is a clear difference, and that has to do with the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare. You want it repealed. You want the Affordable Care Act repealed. Why?… Mr. President, the argument against repeal?
- If Obamacare is repealed. How would you replace it?
- Do you believe there’s a fundamental difference between the two of you as to how you view the mission of the federal government?
- Does the federal government have a responsibility to improve the quality of public education in America?
- Many of the legislative functions of the federal government right now are in a state of paralysis as a result of partisan gridlock. If elected, in your case, if re-elected, in your case, what would you do about that?
- Closing statements.
Clearly we cannot examine the two candidates’ positions for each and every question. That would make this much more than a short blog post, but we can be rest assured that the questions are not going away. The important questions will return again and again as the race goes on.
Let us start with the first question about jobs. The main topic of the debate was domestic policy, and so the respective candidates’ plans for job growth should be examined.
I think we’ve got to invest in education and training. I think it’s important for us to:
Develop new sources of energy here in America, that
we change our tax code to make sure that we’re helping small businesses and companies that are investing here in the United States,
that we take some of the money that we’re saving as we wind down two wars to rebuild America and
that we reduce our deficit in a balanced way that allows us to make these critical investments.
Now, it ultimately is going to be up to the voters — to you — which path we should take. Are we going to double on top-down economic policies that helped to get us into this mess or do we embrace a new economic patriotism that says America does best when the middle class does best?
My plan has five basic parts:
Get us energy independent, North American energy independent. That creates about 4 million jobs.
Open up more trade, particularly in Latin America, crack down on China, if and when they cheat.
Make sure our people have the skills they need to succeed and the best schools in the world. We’re a far way from that now.
Get us to a balanced budget.
Champion small business. It’s small business that creates the jobs in America. And over the last four years, small- business people have decided that America may not be the place to open a new business, because new business startups are down to a 30-year low. I know what it takes to get small business growing again, to hire people.
…The president has a view very similar to the view he had when he ran four years ago, that a bigger government, spending more, taxing more, regulating more — if you will, trickle-down government — would work. That’s not the right answer for America.
As I argued in my last post (“Economic Issues”), the candidates are operating with fairly different conceptions about how the economy actually works, so the strength of their position probably depends on the accuracy of their economics. However, since most people have no way of evaluating said accuracy, we should look at their respective arguments as to why one view should be accepted over the other. Obama claims, as he’s been claiming, that it was Republican “top-down economics” that got us into the mess to begin with and that the government should keep spending to get us out. In my opinion, he did not give great reasons in the course of the debate to show why Romney’s policies were the same as Bush’s (he never even mentioned Bush), or why they would not lead us out of the economic mess. Romney on the other hand, counter-argues that Obama’s “trickle-down government” plan has not worked, will not work, and will actually make things worse; that rather than helping the middle-class, his policies “crush” the middle-class. He then explains how his tax cuts for the middle-class (and only the middle-class) would not only help the middle-class, but the economy as well.
Obama argues that Romney’s tax policies will lead to a 5 trillion dollar deficit. Romney counter-argues that this is not the case (and apparently this is true, if Romney’s economic views are accurate), and spends much of the rest of the debate, claiming repeatedly (and probably truly) that the President is oversimplifying his position. He does this while attempting himself to appear reasonable in taking Obama’s position into account: “The president would prefer raising taxes. I understand. The problem with raising taxes is that it slows down the rate of growth.” This is a valid argument. If economic growth leads to more jobs, and raising taxes hurts growth, then syllogistically, raising taxes will hurt job generation. But the soundness of the syllogism depends on the truth of the premises…
In addition to successfully contrasting himself from Obama on the issue of jobs, in my opinion, Romney also succeeded at creating a positive contrast with his claim against Obamacare (sorry Democrats): it adds to costs, it cuts from Medicare, an unelected board decides the treatments, it makes small businesses less likely to hire, and it kills jobs when helping to generate them ought to be the president’s top priority.
A final tally to Romney’s score for the night: By appealing to his record as governor of Massachusetts, he managed to persuade (at least me) that he’s a flexible team player in ways that Obama may not be:
Jim, I had the great experience — it didn’t seem like it at the time — of being elected in a state where my legislature was 87 percent Democrat. And that meant I figured out from day one I had to get along and I had to work across the aisle to get anything done. We drove our schools to be number one in the nation. We cut taxes 19 times.
I’ll sit down with leaders — the Democratic leaders, as well as Republican leaders, and continue — as we did in my state — we met every Monday for a couple hours, talked about the issues and the challenges in our state in that case. We have to work on a collaborative basis, not because we’re going to compromise our principle, but because there’s common ground.
Obama’s claim to bipartisanship (that his healthcare plan was originally Romney’s) was weak at best, and even seemed to be another point in favor of Romney. In sum: until this debate, Romney had been criticized by all sides as being a flip-flopping ‘etch-a-sketch’ candidate, and by Democrats as being a pandering extremist. But now that the primaries are over, it appears that rather than being an extremist, Romney may in fact be a rational, moderate, politically astute politician who can get things done even when most people inside and out of his party find things to dislike about him. Whether he would make a better president than Obama remains to be seen.