On the one hand, Wednesday’s presidential debate was a success in that Mitt Romney “won” and increased the odds of beating Obama in the general election. The decisive moment came during the discussion about the Simpson-Bowles debt reduction plan, when Romney ridiculed President Obama for failing to reduce the deficit, among other things. Obama meekly conceded the point, resting his argument for reelection on preserving “investments” in “education,” “roads and bridges,” etc. Citing his own so-called budget cuts rang hollow because they simply did not match the reality of repeated trillion-dollar deficits.
I expected Obama to smear Romney as a heartless Republican, bent on starving poor children and (gasp) leaving Americans to plan for retirement on their own. Romney has made a political career out of insulating himself from these attacks by adopting the Left’s language and, to a lesser extent, adopting the Left’s policies. Nevertheless, given what passes for political debate nowadays, Romney was a ripe target for this style of attack.
Obama refused to do so, in an effort, I believe, to control the debate. Playing the role of professor, he thought he could wait out Romney’s presentation to the rest of the class, then send him back to his seat after calmly pointing out the flaws. All the while refusing to own the disastrous effects of his policies. He would rather be in moderator Jim Lehrer’s seat than standing on the dais next to Romney.
The problem with this tactic is it doesn’t work well when you’re dealing with equals. At the 2010 healthcare summit, the Republicans could object until they were blue in the face. The Democrats didn’t need their votes and didn’t want their input. They could pass whatever they wanted, and they did. In 2011, however, Obama was privately humiliated by the Republican Congress during the debt ceiling negotiations. Wednesday his humiliation by Romney was on display for all to see.
On the other hand, the debate was a failure because Romney was...well, Romney. Early on he lost himself—and probably the audience, too—in wonky details instead of focusing on the big picture. He saturated the debate atmosphere with prevaricating drivel, frustrating Obama as he frustrated Santorum, Perry, et al. during the primaries. He cast the debt as a moral issue, but stopped short of casting the scope of government as a moral issue.
At face value, Romney’s objections to the Obama presidency aren’t moral or even constitutional. To the technocratic Romney, Obama has committed the sin of inefficiency. Better, marginally smaller government is Romney’s vision, and he sees subsequent tax revenue from a reinvigorated economy as its fuel.
But government can be improved only so much while more or less retaining its size and scope. Government’s “inefficiency” is mostly in its preoccupation with private and local concerns, like Romneycare, which is bankrupting Massachusetts. Romney’s rebuttal to Obama’s hosannas to “education” should not be: I won’t cut the education budget. It should be: The federal government has no legitimate role in educating schoolchildren.
Selling the blessings of freedom was never Romney’s strength. We must settle for merely better than Obama.