Every pundit agrees that President Obama did badly in the first debate. But I can’t help wondering whether he (and VP Joe Biden) would have been able to come out swinging as freely as they have in the subsequent debates, if it were not for what happened in Denver. Obama must have been afraid of sounding unpresidential. But because his initial performance was so roundly criticized for passivity, he was licensed after that to argue aggressively: “What you are saying is not true, Governor Romney.” And it helps that he was right, each time. (My morning-after talking-head comments can be viewed: “Re-cap of 1st Presidential Debate,” Oct.4; and “Re-cap” of 2nd Presidential Debate, Oct.17.)
Of all the areas where Romney’s assertions in the first debate were rebutted successfully in each of the subsequent debates, his tax “plan” is one of the most important. The credibility of independent analysts and fact-checkers has helped here. The main problem is not that Romney hasn’t announced a plan detailed enough to be worthy of the name. The main problem is, rather, that no plan can achieve three simultaneous goals, each of which the Republican candidate has repeatedly promised: (1) cutting tax rates 20%, (2) avoiding loss of tax revenue by elimination of deductions, and yet (3) preventing overall taxes from going up on those earning less than $200,000 a year. Romney and Ryan have been conducting a shell game: they show the public what is under two of the three shells, but not all three at any one time. For example, Republicans will argue that the tax cut won’t raise the budget deficit by citing a study that cuts middle class benefits like the tax-deductibility of mortgage interest. Then when reminded that they promised not to do that, they will cite a study that lets taxes go up on those earning $100,000-$200,000.
The 20% cut in tax rates would in itself cost about $5 trillion on revenue over 10 years. I don’t think there is any disagreement about that; all the disagreement is whether Romney can make up the revenue by eliminating deductions as he claims. Yet in the first debate, when Obama started to address this question, Romney tried to shut him down by saying that a $5 trillion tax cut wasn’t his plan, as if anyone had ever said it was. Worse, in the Vice Presidential debate, Congressman Ryan claimed that the Obama deputy campaign manager had “stipulated” that they had been wrong, that the tax cut wasn’t really $5 trillion. The media was fooled by this one, failing to note that she had only made the (accurate) statement that the question of controversy was not whether the overall loss of revenue would be the full $5 trillion, but whether Romney could make all of that up by eliminating deductions. This is an elementary point and Obama was able to get it across effectively in the second and third debates, even to number-weary viewers.
Some pundits say that, if Romney’s weakness is that his budget numbers don’t add up, Obama’s weakness is that he hasn’t laid out a specific agenda for his second term. (Either that, or that he didn’t get us out of the recession fast enough.)
What will happen after the election? It is typical that fervently debated plans of the candidates become mostly irrelevant soon after the winner’s presidential term begins. They are overtaken by unexpected events, such as a market crash at home or an armed attack somewhere in the world. In the present case, we have a good idea of the events that, soon after the election, will quickly replace the sound-bites of the campaign. In economic policy, a renewed euro crisis within the next year is likely to have serious spillover effects. But more urgent for the American president will be the Fiscal Cliff, which arrives January 2013. Immediately after the election it will become the dominant question. Yet neither candidate is talking about it. The explanation for this silence is in part that no politician wants to talk about the specifics of budget-cutting pain; but it is also in part that the two candidates genuinely can’t know what they will do before they know how many supporters they would have in Congress to do it.
Foreign policy was the focus of the third debate. Here the pressing issues for the next president will likely be the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the nuclear standoff with Iran, and territorial disputes over islands off the coast of Asia. Instead of discussing realistically the sort of policy decisions that will need to be made, the candidates have been debating “who said what, when” after the killing of four American diplomats in Benghazi last month. Despite that tragedy, Obama’s overall policy in Libya remains a success on net. His actions helped remove Qaddafi, which is reminiscent to me of Bill Clinton’s interventions in Kosovo (helping remove Milosevic) and Haiti (Cédras). Removing bad guys without US combat deaths. Libya ranks behind two other major Obama foreign policy successes: withdrawal from Iraq and removal of bin Laden. Contrast that to the 4,000 Americans who died in the Iraq war; the 3,000 in the World Trade Center; and the global damage done to American foreign policy more generally during those years.