At a doctor’s appointment today, I was warned that, being seven and a half months pregnant, I should try not to get too stressed out watching tonight’s presidential debate. Fat chance. For the first hour and 10 minutes, watching Mitt Romney dominate his confrontation with President Obama was such an excruciating exercise in frustration that I probably should have turned it off and taken to my bed.
The way Obama kept looking down instead of directly into the camera was maddening. So were his seemingly unrehearsed, defensive answers. But the most painful part was watching Romney lie so brazenly, while over and over again Obama failed to effectively challenge him. Romney repeatedly insisted, for example, that he has no plans to reduce the tax burden on the richest Americans. This directly contradicts the analysis of every nonpartisan expert who has looked at Romney’s plan. An August report from the Tax Policy Center, for example, tells us that after examining Romney’s proposals, “[o]ur major conclusion is that any revenue-neutral individual income tax change that incorporates the features Governor Romney has proposed would provide large tax cuts to high-income households, and increase the tax burdens on middle- and/or lower-income taxpayers.”
Perhaps Obama, feeling comfortable in his lead, didn’t want to get down in the muck and call Romney a liar, or perhaps he was just unprepared for the level of deceit on display. Debating someone who is willing to simply make things up is incredibly discombobulating. Regardless, it means that most viewers will be left with a seriously distorted view of what the Republican candidate is proposing. Tomorrow, the fact-checkers will try to correct the record, but the Romney campaign has already decided that facts don’t matter. In August, when team Romney ran utterly mendacious ads accusing the president of gutting welfare-to-work rules, one of his staffers famously said, “We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.” Clearly, he meant it.
Obama did have one decent moment, at about an hour and 10 minutes in, when he called out Romney on the lack of specifics he’s offering. “He says he will close deductions and loopholes for his tax plan: we do not know the details,” said Obama. “He says that he is going to replace Dodd-Frank, Wall Street reform, but we do not know exactly which ones—he will not tell us. He now says he will replace Obamacare and assure all the good things and it will be in there and you don’t have to worry ... At some point the American people have to ask themselves, is the reason Governor Romney is keeping all of these plans to replace secret because they’re too good?”
It was an effective critique, but too little and too late. Overall, Obama was honest but listless and meandering. Romney lied with clarity and conviction. He won and the truth lost.