Saturday, October 6, 2012

Debate #1: Mittens wins, third parties lose, and no one tells the truth!

Last Wednesday, President Barack Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney participated in the first presidential debate of the 2012 campaign.  Until that night, I had agreed with most political analysts in the belief that Obama had a stranglehold on the race for the White House.  It was most definitely his race to lose.  Gallup public opinion polls on the day of the debate showed a 50%-45% margin for the president, with that number having slowly increased in the last month.1  This debate was supposed to mark the beginning of the end for Romney, especially considering the great skill Obama demonstrated in the 2008 debates.  Not so fast, my friends.

Let's dispense with the obvious first:  Mitt Romney took the president to school Wednesday night.  Debates are often connected with the cliche of being similar to a boxing match, and there's a reason for the analogy.  Romney took the fight to Obama, exhibiting direct and forceful statements on positions and put the president on the defensive for most of the night.  Each time Obama directed an accusation about Romney's plans, it was met with a counter punch.  Romney decisively won this debate.

After the debate, we can surmise that Democrats were attempting to do serious damage control, hoping to add the requisite political spin needed to avoid embarrassment.  Democratic leadership offered sugar coated analysis and excuses about the debate.  Former Vice-President, Al Gore, had this to say: 
 “Obama arrived in Denver at 2 p.m. today, just a few hours before the debate started. Romney did his debate prep in Denver. When you go to 5,000 feet, and you only have a few hours to adjust. I don't know... Maybe."2
While altitude sickness is legitimately recognized as an ailment in the medical community, it seemed to have no pronounced effect on Obama in 2008, when he gave a rousing speech to cap off the Democratic National Convention, which was also held in Denver.

Vice-President Joe Biden -- known for his odd remarks -- said Obama was 'presidential' in the debate.  Seriously?   One of the president's senior advisers, David Plouffe, even stated that: "Romney's performance was one that's probably unprecedented in its dishonesty ..."3

Quite the bold statement from the Democratic camp that overlooked the fact that Obama should have been prepared for anything outlandish.  The president was remiss not to sense that Romney would come into this debate with a sense of urgency.

Romney also took charge of the debate by beating Obama and Democrats at their own game.  For perhaps the first time, Romney actually showed energy, vigor, and passion.  He repeated key words and phrases in an attempt to drive home facts (some skewed) and figures.  Romney repeated the words "crushed" and "buried" in reference to the middle class and stated the figure of 23 million unemployed at least twice (an incorrect number).

He also related several personal stories, about individuals he met while on the campaign trail, which was a great move to attempt a connection with Americans.  It was almost as if he was going for a Bill Clinton like "I feel your pain" moment.  How effective were the nuances of Romney?  Difficult to place a tangible measurement on this, but he had to make the effort.  After all, one of the heavy critiques of the challenger is his inability to relate to average citizens.

In contrast, Obama look as though he would have rather been anywhere else that night.  He repeatedly looked down, instead of at his challenger and seemed almost aggravated about having to defend his policies.  The president also appeared lost for words at moment, leading to multiple 'uhs'  and awkward pauses.


While considering the responses given during the debate, it is always fair to ask:  did either candidate err or lie in their statements?  Difficult to say definitively if they lied, but we can determine if their statements were true.  Thanks to the power of the Internet, fact checkers were able to keep the public well informed.  Two of the more well-known fact checking (and nonpartisan) groups are PolitiFact.org and FactCheck.org.  Both sites extensively researched the claims of Obama and Romney, coming to the ultimate conclusion that Obama and Romney made several statements that were either false, an exaggeration, or generally misleading.  Of course, we offer the highlights, which are pulled from both of the previously mentioned fact checking sites.

  • Obama accused Romney of proposing a $5 trillion tax cut. Not true. Romney proposes to offset his rate cuts and promises he won’t add to the deficit.
  • Romney again promised to “not reduce the taxes paid by high-income Americans” and also to “lower taxes on middle-income families,” but didn’t say how he could possibly accomplish that without also increasing the deficit.
  • Obama oversold his health care law, claiming that health care premiums have “gone up slower than any time in the last 50 years.” That’s true of health care spending, but not premiums. And the health care law had little to do with the slowdown in overall spending.
  • Romney claimed a new board established by the Affordable Care Act is “going to tell people ultimately what kind of treatments they can have.” Not true. The board only recommends cost-saving measures for Medicare, and is legally forbidden to ration care or reduce benefits.
  • Obama said 5 million private-sector jobs had been created in the past 30 months. Perhaps so, but that counts jobs that the Bureau of Labor Statistics won’t add to the official monthly tallies until next year. For now, the official tally is a bit over 4.6 million.
  • Romney accused Obama of doubling the federal deficit. Not true. The annual deficit was already running at $1.2 trillion when Obama took office.
  • Obama again said he’d raise taxes on upper-income persons only to the “rates that we had when Bill Clinton was president.” Actually, many high-income persons would pay more than they did then, because of new taxes in Obama’s health care law.
  • Romney claimed that middle-income Americans have “seen their income come down by $4,300.” That’s too high. Census figures show the decline in median household income during Obama’s first three years was $2,492, even after adjusting for inflation.
  • Obama again touted his “$4 trillion” deficit reduction plan, which includes $1 trillion from winding down wars that are coming to an end in any event.
  • Romney says Barack Obama provided $90 billion in green energy 'breaks' in one year.  Not true.  The Romney campaign manipulated numbers from the Stimulus bill from early in the Obama administration.
  • Says 50 million people would lose their health insurance if the Affordable Care Act is repealed. Exaggeration from Team Obama.
 I'm not certain we can trust either of these candidates, which gives rise to another key question.  Why don't we see more third party candidates included in the debates?  Yes, I'm keenly aware that any third party candidate or independent is a longshot to win the presidency, but that doesn't mean they can't provide valuable insight into the race.  Third parties pick up issues that the two major parties often ignore, providing a place and a voice for those who have been marginalized by Democrats and Republicans.

Currently, three individuals beyond the two major parties are running for the presidency.  Gary Johnson will represent the Libertarian Party, Virgil Goode for the Constitution Party, and Jill Stein is the nominee for the Green Party.  Why don't third party candidates participate in the presidential debates?  Fairly easy question.  They aren't permitted.

The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) sets three standards for participation in the debates.  First, a candidate must meet Constitutional requirements of citizenship and age.  Second, the candidate must be on the ballot in enough states to where they could theoretically collect 270 electoral votes.  Finally, a candidate must receive at least 15% support in five major opinion polls.

The first two standards are reasonable, but the last is questionable.  Of course, this standard makes more sense when considering the origin of the CPD.  The Commission didn't exist until 1988, when Democrats and Republicans formed the group to moderate the presidential and vice-presidential debates.

The debates had been previously moderated by the League of Women Voters, who abruptly terminated their own role in the debates when they were presented with an already agreed upon set of demands for debate by Democrat Michael Dukakis and Republican George H.W. Bush.  Since that time, the CPD, headed by the two major parties, continue to create their own rules rather than include other voices.

I'll be interested to see how the latest polls reflect the debate performance, but I'm predicting a 2-3 point surge for Romney.  He will have to continue to perform strongly in the following debates and need help from his running mate to further close the gap.


 Endnotes

1 Election 2012 Trial Heat: Obama vs. Romney, October 4, 2012.

2Sieczkowski, Cavan. "Al Gore Blames Denver's High Altitude For Obama's Dismal Debate Performance," The Huffington Post, October 4, 2012.

3Cohen, Tom. "Obama accuses Romney of dishonesty in debate", CNN Politics, October 5, 2012.

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