If there is one prediction both parties can agree came true of the first presidential debate in Denver last Tuesday, it’s Senator John McCain’s prediction that both candidates would be too well-prepared to make a major slip-up.
Who won? Were their facts accurate? Were they too aggressive or too passive? How will this debate influence voters? A friend of mine joked that the moderator, Jim Leher, lost the debate.
Aesthetically, Mitt Romney came out stronger by far. In contrast to Obama’s normally powerful and moving speeches like the one he gave at the annual United Nations meeting, the president stuttered, “um-ed” and “uh-ed” too much, and on numerous occasions took on a very defeated-looking body posture – head down, arms in, eyes seemingly closed, a somber expression on his face. Romney, by comparison, spoke with clarity, precision and emanated energy. His posture was open and powerful. One Twitter account said “Romney looked like he got more sleep than Obama,” and it really came out not just in how spoke, but in what they said as well. Jeff Zeleny wrote in The Seattle Times the day of the debate that the Massachusetts Governor had been practicing his “respectful aggression,” and all of his practice appears to have paid off.
As for the veracity of the two candidates’ claims, both managed to sneak in some half-truths, conjectures, and outright lies. It might surprise viewers that the two most overly emphasized numbers in the debate – $5 trillion from Obama and $716 billion from Romney – are both misleading half-truths. Obama’s claim that Romney is going to cut taxes by $5 trillion is an estimate from the Tax Policy Center of the aggregate loss from Romney’s tax plan by 2015 from the loss of estate taxes and a sharp drop in income tax rates. But it fails to take into account Romney’s plan for paying for the loss through the elimination of tax credits, deductions and exemptions. The figure is adding up the net loss of the tax policy while ignoring the very aspects of the same policy that would (somewhat) counteract the loss.
Similarly, Romney’s obnoxious repetition of the $716 billion cut to Medicare (a number the “Debate Drinking Game” website told viewers to take a shot for every time it was mentioned) is merely a difference in anticipated costs over ten years. The number is portrayed to be a direct loss for beneficiaries; an emotional appeal to the elderly, sick and family of those who are old or sick. In reality, the money pulled from Medicare (which may or may not accumulate to $716 billion) not only benefits Medicare patients with better and cheaper health care, but also is offset by $318 billion in payroll taxes over the same ten-year time frame, lowering the effective cost to $398 billion. That’s excluding its less direct positive economic impact of course, which is expected to exceed $200 billion in federal savings over about a decade.
Ultimately, the debate was Romney’s to win or lose. Prior to last Tuesday, most polls put Obama in a solid lead – even in swing states – by anywhere from f5 to 15 percent. The political consensus was that Romney needed a strong win to stand a chance in November. Given his extremely powerful performance (did I say performance?) on Tuesday, it looks as though the general election will be much closer than most people anticipated.