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Two strangers showed up for Wednesday’s presidential debate. Mitt Romney, the Republican challenger who can’t put two days of strong campaigning together, was in command and presidential, while President Obama, routinely cool and unflappable, seemed distracted, whiffing on the pitches offered by Romney and moderator Jim Lehrer.
In the end, though, neither was especially truthful, shading facts or omitting details enough to count as deceitful, a quality that we suspect most Americans would prefer to avoid in a president.
That poses a conundrum. It was refreshing to hear the candidates engage on serious issues rather than delivering 30-second sound bites or allowing third parties to do their dirty work, but if they’re not being truthful, what help is it? It’s all about manipulating voters.
Still, in the end, Romney clearly had a good night. After weeks of lackluster performance – expecting, perhaps, that the weak economy made campaigning moot – he was not only aggressive in his answers, but avoided the kind of humiliation that he has invited since the political conventions. He did what he had to do if he was to have any hope of changing the trajectory of a campaign that had disheartened his supporters.
Obama, meanwhile, not only made his case poorly much of the time, but also failed to call Romney on obvious issues. For example, Romney claims his proposed tax cut would be revenue-neutral. That presupposes trillions of dollars in cuts or revenue growth. Where will he make those cuts? Romney didn’t say and Obama didn’t ask.
The same goes for Romney’s voucher plan for Medicare. Obama did a better job on that subject, but still didn’t make a serious effort to pin his opponent down on its ramifications.
As to the veracity of the debaters, here are some of the more glaring frauds they committed, compiled from a variety of sources:
• Romney repeatedly denied plans for a $5 trillion tax cut. Yet, he has proposed cutting tax rates by 20 percent and eliminating the estate tax and alternative minimum tax.
The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center has crunched those numbers and concluded it would reduce tax revenues by about $5 trillion over 10 years. That’s a $5 trillion tax cut and Romney is simply asking voters to trust him that it will be revenue neutral. The last big tax cut – President George W. Bush’s – opened a hole in the budget that has yet to be filled.
• Obama said he wanted to use some of the money that had been directed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to “rebuild America.” But, as Obama himself noted during the debate, those wars were put on the federal credit card. There is no real money to be redirected, especially in a time of towering deficits.
• Romney said again that he wants to repeal Obama’s health care reform and replace it with another plan that he said would cover pre-existing illnesses. But Romney has favored high-risk pools for these Americans, and while those pools cover catastrophic illnesses, they are so expensive as to be financially unmanageable for patients.
• Obama said Romney’s Medicare plan would cost the average senior about $6,000 a year, but that was under the original plan floated by Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan. Ryan has since sweetened the plan.
That’s just a smattering of the deceitfulness quotient of this debate. It doesn’t include Romney’s canard about Obama cutting Medicare by $716 billion or Obama’s deficit reduction plan that includes cuts already achieved or any of several other claims meant to win support by misleading voters. That’s presidential politics in the home of the brave.
Both sides will have further opportunities to repair their reputations – or further damage them. Romney and Obama will meet twice more for debates, but next up are the vice presidential candidates, who clash on Thursday in Danville, Ky. Keep your lie detectors handy.