The first live televised 2012 presidential election debate between the Democrats’ US president Barack Obama and Republican Party candidate Mitt Romney produced no killer moment for the red-tied contender but also left Obama no room for complacency either.
From the television viewer’s point of view, the fact that the studio audience had been ordered to maintain silence throughout by moderator Jim Lehrner had the benefit of making it possible to concentrate on what the two rivals were saying. Perhaps it made matters more difficult for politicians who, like all orators, need the wave of audience response, but Obama and Romney are both big enough to get past that.
The debate, on the theme of domestic policy, was an illustration of the question of whether incumbency is a benefit or a peril.
Leaving, for the moment, the question aside of the purported facts and figures of the rivals’ proposals for what would be happening in the Oval Office after January next year, it was clear that Romney wanted to score points on what had been going on there for the past four years or so.
Romney sought to portray Obama as someone who had broken promises, who had left the jobs and education situation in the US worse than he had found it, who had allowed time to slip by in inaction and – arguably the most ironic charge for a Republican to level – been partisan and divisive.
Romney claimed that Obama would cut Medicare, a charge that many analysts have long found to lack a factual basis, and still on health care, used Obamacare as an illustration of what the Republican sought to show as Obama’s manner of seeking to ram home only his own partisan plans.
As time and again Obama and Romney argued about whether the former Massachusetts governor would introduce $5 trillion in tax cuts to the benefit only of the wealthiest, a statement that Romney denies, and as Romney explained how his plan would bring jobs to the middle class (currently being crushed, he emphasised repeatedly), one seemed to hear an elder Bush now long off the playing field as using the phrase “voodoo economics”. But that is by the by.
Thus it went on. “I will not raise taxes on middle-income families,” insisted Romney. Confronted by Obama with studies critical of the Republican’s tax plans, Romney responded, “there are all these studies out there,” meaning that there were those that were not critical.
Obama invoked Bill Clinton’s name more than once (unlike the acerbic days of the previous contest among the Democrats, by definition the former president is officially on board the campaign of the current Democrat incumbent), including by pointing to contrasting jobs performance in the Clinton years and at what happened after the Bush II campaign promises in 2000 and 2003.
Mathematics, common sense and history showed that Romney’s economic policy plans would help neither the middle class nor the economy as a whole, was Obama’s point.
On the federal deficit, Romney underlined that he did not want to spend money on things that would mean he would have to borrow money from China – the examples that came to him being Obamacare (later, we had a hint that the president had become accustomed to this term’s face) and, of all things, PBS itself (though Romney assured “Jim” that he liked him, and Big Bird, too).
Up against an Obama who should have been clearer, more commanding and confident, one of Romney’s few errors – as noted – was to try to portray Obama as partisan. Considering the Republican track record of having handfuls of spokes always ready for the presidential wheels, it was a backfire, but probably the only one.
Obama’s counter-attack on the charge of partisanship, that Romney’s determination to shut down Obamacare on his first day in office would immediately put him deeply and probably irretrievably at odds with the Democrats in congress, was a fine point but not a rousing one.
Obama’s own statement in closing, that four years ago he had said that he was not a perfect man and would not be a perfect president and that this would probably be, in Romney’s view, a promise he had kept also was hardly likely to resonate.
For Romney, it was a credible performance against a largely lacklustre 90 minutes or so for the president. It was a sober debate, understandably, although as television it made one miss the entertainment value of the battiness of a McCain. Not television’s greatest pilot episode ever, its intrinsic interest value was sufficient to make one want to tune in again for the second debate, on October 16, and in the meantime whether it will mean a rally for Romney.