A boxing match without a knockout

Published 11:00 pm Thursday, October 4, 2012

As presidential debates go, neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney scored a knockout. However, Obama received a wake-up call: The majority of viewers polled thought that Romney won — on technical points. That’s because it seemed like Obama didn’t call out Romney for obscuring, or even denying, his policies and positions. When Obama did point out Romney’s “etch-a-sketch” approach, Romney just bulldozed over the objections — and the truth.

Romney kept his points simple, if not accurate, by repeating them endlessly. For instance, I was one of those who thought Obama didn’t answer Romney’s repeated falsehood that the president cut $716 billion from Medicare and put recipients’ benefits at risk.

But, reviewing the transcript, I found Obama, in fact, did respond: “We were able to save ($716 billion) from the Medicare program by no longer overpaying insurance companies (and) providers. And using that money, we were actually able to lower prescription drug costs for seniors by an average of $600.” Still, many writers said Obama didn’t answer Romney’s trumped-up charge that the $716 billion was a cut instead of a savings.

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Romney’s debate performance was designed to blur the differences between himself and Obama, and the president didn’t call him on it. From regulating Wall Street to reducing taxes for the rich to turning Medicare into an insurance-run program, Obama let Romney get away with claiming that he was for regulations, that he wasn’t reducing taxes for the wealthy and that Medicare would stay the way it is.

The respected National Journal had this take: “Apparently Mitt Romney likes government regulation, loves Medicare the way it is, agrees fairly regularly with President Obama, and does not, in fact, want to cut taxes very much.

“If you were tuning into the presidential race for the first time on Wednesday night, you’d be forgiven if you thought the simplifications were actually the crux of Romney’s plan for the country.”

Romney cherry-picked the Dodd-Frank bill that regulates Wall Street’s worst (but, by far, not all) practices, talking about a provision that puts a few banks in the “too big to fail” category.

Romney began by saying, “Regulation is essential.” And then used the example of a lone provision as reason to scrap the entire law — freeing Wall Street to repeat the behaviors that led to the crash of 2008.

Romney did the same for Obamacare, falsely claiming it would “kill jobs” and would put government in control of private individuals’ personal health care. Obama did say Obamacare was nearly a duplicate of Romney’s health care plan in Massachusetts, and it hadn’t led to job losses. But he essentially let Romney get away with claiming the government would interfere with individuals’ health care options.

Romney repeatedly said he wouldn’t touch Medicare for seniors currently enrolled in the program, and that is true. However, he breezed past the fact that he would permanently change Medicare for those now 55 and younger, effectively replacing it by putting the insurance companies in charge, and raising the average cost to an elderly person by $6,000 per year.

Bottom line: Romney won on style, and Obama didn’t appear to have a strategy or a game plan to win the debate on substance. As one of my colleagues wrote in an email exchange: “Obama may have been psyched by being president, wondering how he would look, sound and seem to the audience, especially independents and undecideds, if he attacked his opponent.”

Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News, and a contributing columnist to Ms. Magazine and O, the Oprah Magazine.