Americans heard two starkly different approaches to fixing the economy and cutting the federal deficit on Wednesday night in the first presidential debate.
President Barack Obama offered the realistic approach of mixing spending cuts with new revenue. Republican nominee Mitt Romney stuck with the fantasy that everything can be made right with tax cuts and spending reductions. The first debate broke no new ground and had no clear winner, but it reaffirmed the clear differences between the candidates in a tight race with few undecided voters left.
The first half of the debate focused on tax policy and deficit reduction, but it would have been hard for viewers to follow without a briefing book. Romney rejected Obama's characterization of his plan as a $5 trillion tax cut, plus $2 trillion in additional defense spending. He denied he would raise taxes on the middle class to help pay for tax cuts for the wealthy, an approach Obama called "top-down economic policies that got us into this mess.''
"That's not what I'm going to do,'' Romney countered.
Of course, independent analysts have reached a different conclusion. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center concluded that people who earn more than $1 million in taxable income would see an average net decrease in taxes of more than $87,000. But taxpayers earning between $75,000 and $100,000 per year could see their taxes increase by more than $800. The center made some assumptions that Romney disputes, but that's because he still has not said which tax deductions and breaks he would eliminate to cover the revenue lost by lowering tax rates.
"There are alternatives to achieve the objectives I have,'' Romney said, without embracing any specific one.
The arguments were familiar in other areas as well. Romney pledged to repeal the Affordable Care Act; Obama defended it. Romney criticized the health care law for including $716 billion in savings by slowing the growth of Medicare spending. Obama missed an opportunity to remind Romney that he initially embraced the House Republican budget authored by his running mate, Paul Ryan, that included the same $716 billion in Medicare savings.
Romney spent much of the debate railing against government and touting free enterprise and individual responsibility in areas from health care to education. Obama made a persuasive case that government can make a difference, from expanding access to health care to reforming the college loan programs.
With no major gaffes or memorable lines by either candidate, the first debate is unlikely to change the arc of the race with less than five weeks left until Election Day. Romney appeared less robotic than usual, referring to his talks with a small businessman in St. Louis, a mother in Denver losing her home to foreclosure and an unemployed woman in Ohio. But that effort to appear more in tune with everyday concerns is at odds with the negative impact of Romney's fiscal proposals on the middle class.
Obama again sounded too professorial at times as he attempted to poke holes in Romney's proposals. He adequately defended his record, but he should have been more specific about his own plans for a second term. And while Romney was aggressive in attacking Obama's priorities, the president was less effective in making clear the shortcomings of the Republican nominee's policy positions.
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In tone and demeanor, Romney may have exceeded low expectations and gained back some ground he had lost in the opinion polls. But it was Obama who offered the more pragmatic, thoughtful approach to addressing the nation's most pressing problems.