While President Obama was the favorite heading into Wednesday night’s debate, Governor Romney left Denver with the victory. The word to describe Romney’s strategy last night is “vague.” Romney was quick to criticize the President’s policies, but when asked about his own was short on specifics. There was also a difference in the way the candidates presented themselves. Romney was quick and confident (although there was a disappointing lack of zingers) while Obama appeared more hesitant.
The first segment of the debate dealt with the differences between the two candidates’ policies on job creation. Obama looked towards the tax code and tried to back Romney into a corner on his tax plans. The President accused Romney’s plan of costing $7 trillion through a $5 trillion tax cut and $2 trillion in additional military spending. Romney’s response was that he would close loopholes and deductions…but we are left in the dark about which loopholes and deductions he would actually close. In the end, the issue came down to Romney asserting that his plan would lower the tax rate on middle income families, promote small business, and that his plan would cost nothing in the end. We never get a clear explanation of what that plan is.
Next, the candidates tackled the issue of the deficit. Romney said that he would reduce the deficit by lowering spending for unnecessary government programs without raising taxes. As if Jim Lehrer wasn’t having a rough enough night already, one of the only specific programs Romney said he would cut was PBS. Romney also attacks Obama on the Simpson-Bowles plan. He argued that Obama should have supported the plan more aggressively since it was a truly bipartisan solution. Of course Romney himself preferences his plan over Simpson-Bowles; but, again we are left wondering what exactly Romney’s plan is. This same sort of argument is made again when the Dodd-Frank regulations come up. Romney said that he likes some of the regulations but thinks that Dodd-Frank should be repealed and replaced with something else, no clarification on what that something else is.
When it came to healthcare Romney was at his most specific and this was Obama’s biggest victory in the debate. Romney said that he supports turning Medicare into a voucher system, a position that is deeply unpopular with elderly voters in swing states. There is no doubt in my mind that the Obama campaign will capitalize on those statements. If you live in Florida, expect to see those ads running soon (if they aren’t already).
The best way to summarize Romney’s strategy is that he heavily criticized what is happening under Obama in the status quo without offering a clear explanation of his own counter-plan. It is easy to make claims that the United States will be better once you’re elected when you aren’t bogged down in the specific details of your plan and their unpleasant consequences. Additionally, Romney was much quicker with a list of statistics and anecdotes than Obama. Although both candidates need to undergo an intensive round of fact checking, it is much easier to win when you can quickly rattle off a string of arguments that go largely unchallenged. Obama does a terrible job of answering Romney’s arguments. His response should have been to defend his first term in office and he never did that.
Governor Romney was also smart to appeal to moderates and independents. That is absolutely what he should have been doing. He reclaimed his record of bipartisanship in Massachusets and said that he would be willing to pursue bipartisan solutions if elected. Romney was also smart to appeal to the middle class when explaining his tax plans and plans for job creation. If he sticks to these messages, Governor Romney stands a chance of winning some of the important undecided vote.
A part of any public speaking event is presentation. Romney was energetic, aggressive, and confident. For his part, Obama tried to play it cool and collected; maybe he wanted to appear above the fray of today’s combative politics or maybe, as some have suggested, he was trying to avoid the “angry black man” stereotype. Either way, Obama did not challenge Romney nearly enough. He came off as flustered and complacent. Frankly, I was not particularly convinced President Obama wanted the job. Obama has always been a slow speaker, but in this instance his slowness came across as hesitation and uncertainty when compared to Romney’s confident manner.
Certainly last night’s debate was a learning experience for both candidates. For Romney, he should stick to the message he presented last night and continue to heavily criticize the President’s actions. Obama should should give detailed explanations of his policies but be more aggressive with Romney. It will be interesting to see how both sides adapt their strategies for their next debate.
The next debate is the Vice Presidential debate, which promises to be a real treat. Until then, happy debating!