Romney Comes Across as the Victor in Round 1

Republican challenger reshapes his image in first presidential debate, but got away with some whoppers in the process.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney had a very good night last night in the presidential election’s first head-to-head debate.  He was forceful, he was in command, he got all of his points across, and he presented an image of himself as a man of the people.

He also lied through his teeth.  Repeatedly.  And got away with it unchallenged.

Any way you slice it, the night was not a good one for Barack Obama.  He was ready with the facts, but he was completely unprepared to fight.  It’s not as if he didn’t have plenty of opportunities to challenge Romney on some, shall we say, eyebrow raising things that the Republican asserted throughout the night.  And he certainly wasn’t forceful enough in defending his own policies.  It was clear that one of the contestants came in with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove, and the other entered content with the status quo, impressed with his own poll numbers and satisfied that he wouldn’t have to do much in order to maintain his seemingly commanding lead at this stage of the campaign.

The truth is, as other pundits have pointed out—including Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, who ran John McCain’s campaign in 2008—that Barack Obama could have effectively ended this election last night.  A strong performance against Romney would have all but ended the Republican’s hopes at the White House.

But he didn’t.  Instead, he allowed the debate to breathe new life into the once hapless Romney campaign that even as of a few days ago was nothing more than a fast sinking ship.  And Obama has no one to blame but himself.

On healthcare, Romney repeatedly derided Obamacare as a “government takeover of healthcare.”  Obama countered—ineffectively—that it was actually an expansion of private health insurance with government assistance.  And while Romney continued with his “government takeover” meme, Obama half-heartedly tied “Obamacare” to the Massachusetts health care law that Romney himself created.  Obama correctly pointed out that he used the same advisors that Romney did in building his program, and that the two laws were nearly identical.  So the obvious question would have been to ask Romney whether the Massachusetts law that has worked so well, and that Romney himself boasted about during the debate, amounted to a “government takeover of healthcare?”  The question was never asked, and thus never answered.

Romney also went unchallenged on his blatant flip-flop on healthcare.  He is so vehemently opposed to Obamacare, pledging to repeal it on his first day in office, even as it was established that the national health care reform act was based on Romney’s own plan.  However, in 2009, Romney himself penned on op-ed in the USA Today insisting that his Massachusetts plan was the ideal model for national reform.  A blatant hypocrisy that he was never called on.

On Medicare, Obama managed to corner Romney on his desire to turn the popular health care program for seniors into a voucher program for those currently 55 and under.  He managed to spin his way out of that corner.  Romney also repeatedly bludgeoned Obama with his “$716 billion cut to Medicare,” telling the viewing audience that he would “restore those cuts back to Medicare.”  Never mind that the cuts Obamacare enacted were in overpayments to insurance companies and healthcare providers, and not one penny of them amounted to a cut in benefits, and instead the money is used to expand health coverage.  And never mind that Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan has proposed the identical cuts in his own budget plan, only Ryan would use those cuts to pay down the deficit instead of improving the health care system as Obama does.  That fact was never brought up, not by Obama, and not by feckless debate moderator Jim Lehrer.

On taxes, Obama chastised Romney for his plan’s $5 trillion in tax cuts over 10 years, cuts that will overwhelmingly benefit the wealthy.  Romney insisted that under his plan the wealthy will not pay one dime less in taxes.  This despite his plan’s call to extend the Bush tax cuts permanently, and then slash taxes by an additional 20%.  He claims his plan will be revenue neutral, which has been deemed “mathematically impossible.”  According to the most respected and quoted examination of Romney’s tax plan in existence, the Tax Policy Center determined that a $4.8 trillion tax cut is exactly what the plan will amount to.  Romney says he will close loopholes that will make up the difference.  Except that the Tax Policy Center’s analysis determined that there simply aren’t enough loopholes in the tax code to make his plan work.  Romney has also refused to identify which loopholes he would close.  Lehrer, the debate moderator, challenged Romney on this point, but got no answer.  And when Lehrer failed to push the issue, Obama should have.

But alas, we’re just supposed to take Romney’s word for it that his plan will do what he says it will do; that he will do exactly what he said he would.  And Obama seemed satisfied with that, and let it go.

When talking about education, Romney presented himself as a staunch advocate.  But when asked specifically what role the federal government should play in education, he danced and pirouetted around the question.  And never once was he challenged on his statements during the primary campaign that he would seek to eliminate the Department of Education in its entirety.  He has since tempered that idea, saying that he “will either consolidate it into another agency or perhaps make it a heck of a lot smaller.”  This would seem to be low hanging fruit for both Obama and Lehrer, but neither challenged the Republican on it.

Throughout the debate Romney expressed his concern for the middle class and the poor, and came across as a champion of all Americans.  Only that’s not what he really thinks, as he expressed an explicit disdain for nearly half of the country in front of wealthy Florida donors.  Romney was never once challenged on his 47% remarks; never once asked to explain that video in light of his “deep concern” for the middle class.

Obama’s performance was disheartening.  The Republican candidate came in ready to spar, ready to pounce.  Obama did not.  I would not go so far as to say that Obama looked disinterested.  Rather he was too timid, too afraid to tarnish his presidential image.  The burden of the office quite possibly weighed heavily on the president, and he seemed too afraid to come across as angry or aggressive.  Romney had no such reservations.

The casual viewer will come away impressed with Romney’s performance, ready to accept that he has the interests of the American electorate in its entirety at heart.  He was never really challenged, either by Obama or by Lehrer.  Obama had the tools to squash the Romney candidacy, but outright refused to use them.  He allowed the challenger to take far too many liberties, and did not match Romney’s aggressive energy.  This debate was only round one, and Obama had a nice cushion to work with.  But after last night, that cushion is sure to be seriously eroded, and another performance like this one could put his presidency in jeopardy.

Follow Andy on Twitter at @AndyCohenSD


Andy Cohen

Andy spent 15 years working in the highest levels of the San Diego professional sports world, including both the Padres and the Chargers. He began his foray into writing while a volunteer for Francine Busby's 2010 Congressional campaign, eventually becoming a contributor to the now defunct SDNN. He has reported on local and national politics for both the OB Rag and the San Diego Free Press. When not reporting news and events, he offers political and policy commentary from a liberal perspective, occasionally turning back to his sports roots. While he does not hide his more liberal political bent, Andy always strives for fairness in the telling of a story.


  1. avatar says

    Don’t be despondent, folks: I think it’s all about tactics.

    Obama presented differently in this weak Lehrer-managed silent debate format. He was lower-key than usual, almost impersonal, sorta shut-down, factual to the point of viewer boredom (speaking for myself here.) We’re disappointed because he seemed flat. Obama didn’t take heated issue with the enthusiastic upbeat Romney — nor did he present himself as the heavy looking to deliver a knockout punch to the underdog. (He didn’t even rise to the bait when Romney made a condescending analogy between his importuning “five sons” and the President of the United States.)

    No red meat that viewers really tune in for — let’s admit it — but this is a juncture in the campaign when polls are shifting Obama’s way everywhere. Today, the hard-hitting and influential ads and videos are back on the air and Obama is back on the stump, swinging.

  2. avatarKaren says

    Romney had nothing to lose and everything to gain. America is being duped by a used car salesman attitude.

  3. avatarDoug Porter says

    A little post debate humor:
    Snow White, Superman and Pinocchio are walking along.
    They see a sign: “Contest for World’s Most Beautiful Woman.” Snow White goes in, later comes out smiling, wearing a crown.

    They walk along and see another sign: “Contest for World’s Strongest Man.” Superman goes in, later comes out smiling, wearing the belt.

    They walk along and see a sign: “Contest for World’s Greatest Liar.” Pinocchio goes in, later comes out with his head down crying.

    “Who the hell is Mitt Romney?” Pinocchio sobs.

    Now get back to the phones. h/t Ambushed@DailyKos

  4. avatar says

    The moderator might as well have stayed home. He was totally ineffectual and let Romney and at least one time Obama walk all over him. It’s ridiculous to have a debate like that. Obama looked frustrated that Lehrer let Romney get away with so much. Obama was not “up” for the debate. His energy level was low. Romney, on the other hand, was high energy. Note to Obama: have a couple cups of coffee before the next debate. You’ve got to be “on fire and ready to go.”

  5. avatarjudi says

    Truly a disappointing performance by both Obama and Lehrer – two men that I have had the utmost respect for. Lehrer’s body language certainly told of his frustration. He is no longer the strong, objective reporter that he was so many years ago. What can you say about the President? Nothing good in this debate. We can only hope that there is as big an audience for #2 debate and that he finds his balls.