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First Debate: Where Was Obama While Romney Lied?

Daniel Lewin |
October 4, 2012 | 7:07 p.m. PDT


The first presidential debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama took place Wednesday night. (Barack Obama, Creative Commons)
The first presidential debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama took place Wednesday night. (Barack Obama, Creative Commons)
Mitt Romney, given the sorry state of his campaign in recent weeks, really had nowhere to go but up last night at the first presidential debate.

The last few gaffe-filled weeks have left the former governor looking weak and, at times, extremely out of touch with most of America. Romney could little afford to squander the first of three debates scheduled against Obama - a forum that is widely watched by most politically interested Americans. And squander it he did not.

Last night at the University of Denver, Romney made a strong argument for why he should be president, and in so doing he did not look like the same candidate who bumbled his way through his international relations tour or who was caught denigrating close to half the country's citizens as lazy tax cheats. In short, when he needed to most, Romney won.

ALSO SEE: First Debate: Obama's and Romney's Five Bests And Worsts

Obama did poorly, no question. He sometimes looked awkward, and at times even looked like he wished he’d had a teleprompter up onstage with him so he could give one of his rousing fire-up-the-crowd speeches. More importantly, unlike Obama, Romney was able to connect with the audience (as was made clear by post-debate polling) on multiple occasions as he explained his tax plan, his healthcare plan, and his various ideas to reform the economy.

It would seem surprising that the famously cerebral president could cave in so easily and let Romney take the debate, but Romney had a key advantage that Obama did not - Romney did not need to feel constrained by reality or facts, but rather could say what he felt would resonate most with Americans. As senior Obama advisor David Axlerod lamented afterward of Romney, "I give him credit for a strong performance. I give him an F for being honest with the American people.” And Obama let him get away with it! His inexplicable inability or unwillingness to call out Romney on his blatant and obvious misstatements of facts was Obama’s largest misstep by far, and the one that surely cost him the debate and, arguably, allowed Romney a lifeline back into the race.

ALSO SEE: First Debate: Evaluating Obama's, Romney's Perspectives

Anyone who had been following politics, particularly the progression of the GOP, in recent months, had to have been taken aback by what they saw last night. The Republican party, seen as trending further and further right by most observers, suddenly didn’t look so scary or extreme, and quite a few of the points Romney made about his platform made him seem actually, well, reasonable. What of Romney's five trillion dollar tax cut, the majority of it going to the wealthy? “I do not have a $5 trillion tax cut,” Romney protested repeatedly.

Fine, but surely he would not deny that his tax cut would have to add to the deficit, would he? “What I’ve said is I won’t put in place a tax cut that adds to the deficit. No economist can say Mitt Romney’s tax plan adds $5 trillion if I say I will not add to the deficit with my tax plan.” Fortunately, economists say what they say based on academic analysis of facts and “because I say so” is not accepted as valid evidence. So yes, they can say that, and, in fact, that is precisely what most of them are saying.

But no, argued Romney, my 20 percent broad tax cut for all won’t add to the deficit, I’ll just eliminate most tax deductions for the wealthy and that will make up the difference. According to independent analysis, even if Romney eliminated every single tax deduction (and his proposal obviously doesn’t extend that far), he would not get even close to making up for the taxes he cut.

ALSO SEE: First Debate Showed Romney Lacks Credible Fiscal Policy

When the debate moved on to healthcare, Romney directly accused Obama of planning to cut $716 billion from Medicare, a point sure to resonate with millions of Americans who depend on the program. It’s also a point that’s patently untrue, as asserted by numerous independent analysts. Again, nothing from Obama. No rebukes, no fact-checking, no calling out his opponent on his blatant lies. It seems highly dubious that Obama would not realize that this is a lie, and equally unlikely that he would not realize what an effective line of attack it would be for Romney. What gives?

Look, this debate should not have been difficult for Obama to win. When your opponent needs to lie on national TV to make his candidacy palatable to the American public, it does not take much intellectual prowess or debating skill to call them out and expose the absurdity of what they are saying.

Simply put, Obama punted. Romney was on the offensive all night, making some good points, it’s true, but also heavily relying on half-truths, lies and mischaracterizations to assure the American people that his plans for the country are not as drastically right-wing as they actually are. Nearly every single time he did this, Obama failed to call him out on it. It became clear that Obama’s goal was just to get out of the debate with no major missteps or major headlines. To be fair, he did accomplish that, committing no real gaffes that could be used against him in the remainder of the race.

But one has to wonder if the President is running out the clock a bit too early here. Yes, he’s ahead, but his lead is far from insurmountable. If he is going to concede the next two debates to Romney, just as he did last night, that lead will look even more and more vulnerable. Being overly focused on not making a mistake could, in fact, be President Obama’s biggest mistake of all.


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