After scraping around for something — anything — good to say about President Barack Obama's debate performance, I came up with this much: At least he didn't look at his watch.
That disastrous gesture by incumbent President George H.W. Bush near the end of his 1992 debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot pretty much sunk whatever re-election chances he still had.
Obama suffered from the same sort of bored, disengaged, ho-hum presentation at his faceoff with Republican nominee Mitt Romney in Denver. Call it the Second-Term Blahs. Running for re-election, incumbent presidents fall completely out of practice. After four years of being surrounded by deferential yes-men and yes-women, presidents simply forget what it is like to face somebody who is pointedly accusing them of wrecking the country.
Did Obama forget that he was not standing on that stage to hold a civil conversation? Televised presidential debates are political theater. What you say is less important than how you say it, especially to the estimated 5 percent or so of voters who are still undecided. Many, by nature, are low-information voters or, sometimes, slow-information voters. It never hurts to repeat, repeat, repeat your talking points to this crowd, no matter how many times you have heard yourself say them.
Romney understands. With his polls sinking in the battleground states, he cheerfully threw everything that he had into the fight — plus more than a few things that he did not have, such as facts that were on his side.
For example, when Romney raised his by-now-familiar charge that, “On Medicare for current retirees, he's cutting $716 billion from the program,” I thought Obama would hit it out of the park. He would at least, I thought, note that the cost savings was not coming at the expense of Medicare beneficiaries. It is coming from insurance companies, hospitals and other providers.
The insurers and providers agreed to the cuts in return for the money they will gain from Obamacare's reducing the number of uninsured patients they currently care for. Here's a specific way that Obama helps curb Medicare's rising costs while expanding health care coverage. Romney's running mate Rep. Paul Ryan was impressed enough to include it in his much-touted budget proposal. Romney rejects it, without any specifics as to how he would replace it.
That's not the only cost Romney is vague about. He flatly rejected Obama's assertion that Romney's 20 percent across-the-board tax cut would cost $5 trillion over the next decade — and raise taxes on the middle class while giving a cut to the wealthy. “I don't have a $5 trillion tax cut,” Romney said.
“What I've said,” he continued, “is I won't put in place a tax cut that adds to the deficit.” Yet he offered no estimate of his own to counter Obama's number as to cost or who would bear its burden.
And Romney flipped enough flip-flips to make inviting targets for zingers, had Obama cared to zing a few. For example, after promising repeatedly to repeal, repeal, repeal Obamacare, he now says he wants to keep the popular parts like covering pre-existing conditions and children up to age 26. Yet he offers no indication as to how he would pay for the unpopular parts, such as the universal mandate that pays for the good parts.
Most viewers probably thought, as I did, that Romney hogged more time in this largely free-flowing debate. Yet it turned out that Obama grabbed almost 4 1/2 minutes more than Romney, according to a political website at the University of Minnesota. Who would have guessed? Yet Romney managed to squeeze in 541 more words, according to the Atlantic Wire. In short, Romney won the night by making better use of his time — and not just in his word count.
Obama's campaign did an excellent job of arguments like these on the day after the debate. Too bad for Obama that he didn't make more during the debate. Time is precious.
TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES