Romney Won Tonight, But Does It Matter?

Josh Barro is the lead writer for the Ticker, Bloomberg View's blog on economics, finance and politics. His primary areas of interest include tax and fiscal policy, state and local government, and planning and land use.
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The most surprising fact about tonight’s debate is that President Obama spoke for four minutes longer than Mitt Romney did. It certainly didn’t feel like that watching the debate, in which Romney seemed to have far more to say than Obama.

The two biggest knocks on Romney as a candidate are that he is wooden and that he is allergic to policy specifics. Yet on the opening question, about how to create jobs, Romney offered an answer that was both more heartfelt and more specific than the president’s. Romney was the stronger debater throughout the night, but especially in the first 20 minutes, he completely dominated.

Obama seemed tired and out of ideas, unwilling to mount a vigorous defense of his record or to go after Romney. The president had only one really good moment, when he called out Romney for keeping his proposals on health care, taxes and banking regulation secret. Obama, jokingly, asked if the plans were secret because they were too good, or too favorable to the middle class, to describe publicly.

Obama needed to keep up that attack all night, and he could have. Whenever the president discussed an aspect of his policies that was popular, Romney said he supported that, too. Romney said he likes the good parts of Obamacare and the good parts of Dodd-Frank. Whenever Obama raised a negative aspect of Romney’s tax plan, Romney simply insisted that his plan just isn’t so.

In other words, Romney was shaking the etch-a-sketch. He was vulnerable to the critique that he is changing his views to match audience desires and therefore can’t be trusted. But Obama mostly failed to make that point.

Partly, the problem was that Romney was prepared for fact-checks and Obama wasn’t. Here are two examples:

Obama complained about a tax break for oil companies like Exxon that Republicans have defended. Romney had a strong and detailed response at his fingertips: The “tax break” is a 100-year-old accounting rule; it actually goes mostly to small oil companies; it only costs $2.4 billion a year (about a fiftieth of what the president has spent on green initiatives) – and, hey, he’d probably repeal it as part of a broad corporate tax reform.

For contrast, when Romney claimed that he would protect people with pre-existing conditions, like Obamacare does, the president tried to point out a weakness: Romney’s plan is actually a fairly minor modification of existing law that would only help you if you keep continuous health insurance. As such, it wouldn’t help people with pre-existing conditions who are already uninsured, and it wouldn’t help people who can’t afford to maintain coverage in the future. But the president garbled his response, tripping over his explanation of “continuous coverage,” and he didn’t score the hit on Romney. All the viewer was left with was that Romney says his plan covers pre-existing conditions, and Obama says it doesn’t.

Obama also twice raised the issue of Romney’s proposed Medicaid cuts, the issue that Bill Clinton used so effectively in his speech at the Democratic convention. But Obama could not explain it as crisply as Clinton did. Instead of designating Clinton as “Secretary of Explaining Stuff,” maybe Obama should have assigned him as his debate stand-in.

There is one big silver lining for Obama: The debates usually don’t do a lot to change how people vote. When they do matter, as with Gerald Ford in 1976, it’s usually because of a major blunder, not a broadly weak performance. Obama did himself no favors tonight, but his weakness probably had little impact on the number of votes he will receive.

(Josh Barro is lead writer for the Ticker. E-mail him and follow him on Twitter.)


This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.