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Ruth Marcus: the artful dodgers

Oklahoman Published: October 5, 2012

— I was prepared, sorta, kinda, to defend Barack Obama's debate performance until I heard Obama adviser David Axelrod on television preening about how the president had spoken to viewers like adults.

Oh please. If only.

Defense first. Wednesday night's debate posed two risks for Obama. One danger, if the president had come out swinging the way my wrestling-fan colleagues are now clamoring for, was that he would come off as arrogant, snide, dismissive — that he would have another “likable enough” moment.

This might have been a lot more fun — more smackdown snippets for the highlights reel — but it would not have served the president well. We'd be replaying the attack moments and talking about a snarling Obama, unlikable enough.

The other risk was being disdained as too passive, too restrained. Obama's advisers clearly made the decision, and I think it was the right one, that this was the lesser risk. Did Obama dial it down too far? Did he hold back when he should have pounced? Sure, but calibrating the balance of aggressiveness is not an easy task. If I were an Obama adviser, I would worry about the danger of Obama overcompensating in the second debate, much like Al Gore did by invading George W. Bush's space.

Granted, my failure to be swept away on the tide of Obama-bashing derives in part from an inability to separate the cosmetics of the evening (Mitt Romney's patient, mildly disdainful smile as Obama spoke versus the president's grimacing, head-down contrast) from the substance of Romney's relentless dodging — on taxes, on spending, on debt reduction.

The Republican nominee produced a rare presidential smile when he spoke of being the father of five boys and, therefore, “used to people saying something that's not always true, but just keep on repeating it and ultimately hoping I'll believe it.” Yet Romney was the ultimate practitioner of this repeated-enough tactic, especially on the topic of his plan to cut personal income tax rates by 20 percent.

Romney waved away any questions about how to fill the $5 trillion hole with airy promises of curtailed deductions, unspecified, and economic growth, assumed. Reputable analyses show this is not feasible without raising taxes on the middle class? “There are all these studies out there,” Romney said, waving them away. But facts are stubborn things.

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