Live-Blogging 2012 Presidential Debate #1: In Denver, with Jim Lehrer

Note: It’s already been a busy publication day at The Liberal Ironist…
For today’s entry on how post-revolutionary progress in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya has been sold short, click here.
For today’s entry on President Obama’s deferential approach to Congress, how it has been more unfortunate than disastrous, and indications that he may take a more-assertive role after the election, click here.

Come one, come all!  Gather ’round for the main event–Mitt Romney’s probable presidential point of no return!  Will out-of-practice so-so debater President Obama flounder before the rhetorical powers of the man who bested Texas Governor Rick Perry and Godfather’s pizza magnate Herman Cain in intellectual agonism?  Or will Governor Romney indeed lose his nerve before Barack Obama, whom we are told is one of the most gifted orators in modern American history and before whom surely no other Democratic President in living memory can claim to have a more-Dionysian mastery of his audience?

Let’s watch and find-out!  If you take each campaign’s word for it, the other guy is just stunning in a debate

10:32 pm: President Obama’s closing statement: I will work tirelessly for you–all of you. This means the Federal Government actually doing things for you, in case there was some confusion about this.

Governor Romney’s closing statement: Not bad in any way, but he promises things he really isn’t in a position to deliver.  The epitome of it, I think, was his promise not to let cuts to Defense spending happen under forced sequestration; but how does he propose to stop it?  There is no chance of the Republicans getting near 60 votes in the US Senate to force a break on sequestration, and President Obama as a lame-duck President would have the power to spike the extension of George W. Bush’s temporary tax cuts, forcing any discussion of permanent tax cuts into the 113th Congress.  Democrats absolutely would not work with Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act–especially considering what it would already have cost them politically–and they will not have any motivation to help a President Romney cut taxes and increase military spending steeply entirely at the expense of trillions of projected Federal program cuts over the following decade.  I don’t question the Governor’s intentions (outside of health care reform, where it is painfully clear that he has no coherent plan), but he will have no traction to pursue his positive goals considering his intention to go on the offensive–eliminating the Affordable Care Act, eliminating the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, cutting tax rates on the rich, and cutting Federal spending deeply–on Democratic policy priorities.  In short, Governor Romney promises to make all the bad things go away and all the good things happen.  Outside of health care reform I do believe he has an idea of what the end product should look like, but considering the rosiness of his speech at the close I’m convinced he has no plausible plan for achieving any of it.

10:25 pm: Governor Romney has promised to sit down with Democratic Congressional leaders to hash-out the way forward on the budget.  President Obama did just that in early-2009; that didn’t shake-out so well, and is an event recalled with notoriety in Republicans’ books these days.  Governor Romney would probably be all ears to know how Congressional Democrats could tolerate his proposal for revenue-neutral (at best) tax reform, trillions of dollars in new spending cuts and massive increases in Defense spending, so I’m not surprised he wants to meet with them to hash that out.

The President notes that Congressional Democrats aren’t going to be very receptive at their 1st meeting, considering he will be in the midst of his effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act.  What can the Governor possibly think they will want to negotiate on?  The President has a much more-interesting answer to this question: Part of being a responsible elected official is also saying “No” and not just laying down when the opposition has demands.  He has a much more-sober view of what can be achieved in this charged partisan environment.  I really do think the President’s re-election, in halting the past few years’ electoral volatility, represents the best prospect for bi-partisan cooperation on the budgetary and economic issues immediately on the docket.

10:15 pm: President Obama insists that the role of Government is to enrich our economy; railroads were beneficiaries of Federal land grants and regulation, and land-grant universities eventually brought a university education within everyone’s reach.

Governor Romney insists that he agrees that public schools are a government responsibility; he avers that it is “primarily at the State and local level.”  He doesn’t attack the idea of a Federal role in spending or regulations on primary and secondary education; again, this seems to be an area of a lot of policy continuity between President Obama and Governor Romney.

The rest of Governor Romney’s response to this question is a little “out there,” focusing on government’s role to protect us through Defense (that’s pretty basic) and to defend religious liberty.  I like the sentiment, but is there really disagreement between the President and Governor Romney on religious freedom?  Is this about the (largely-resolved) issue of religious institutional employers’ provision of contraceptives for employees? the video riots and the Middle East and freedom of speech?  Governor Romney has shown an occasional desperation to score “points” with the Republican base that are already going to turn-out to vote for him; he’s getting the points in, but I feel like he’s wasting time on them rather than speaking to broader appeal.

The President suggests that Governor Romney’s proposed Federal budget cuts would have to slash education spending to meet his tax, Defense spending and deficit-reduction goals–which is almost certainly true, particularly in dealing with a very-Republican House of Representatives.

10:07 pm: Grand Moderator Lehrer turns to Romney, asking what he would do about health care reform nationwide if the Affordable Care Act were to be repealed.  He promises all the good, popular regulations instituted in the Affordable Care Act but also insists that “the private sector is always better.”  He rejects all of the Federal cost-saving measures and the Federal individual mandate to buy health insurance that actually pay for the popular far-reaching regulations he is promising he wants to institute himself; again, he has promised to repeal the Affordable Care Act and start over, thus taking away all the regulatory benefits he has promised to insurance customers.  Frankly, Romney is all over the map on this issue.  This is a mess, by far Romney’s worst answer to any of Lehrer’s questions, and he continues to contradict himself constantly on the health care issue; Romney, like the Republican Party generally, has no idea what to do next about general health care, and is just blowing smoke.

10:02 pm: Governor Romney has said “I like what we did in Massachusetts!”  Governor Romney has again embraced the individual mandate to buy health insurance for Massachusetts, but not for America as a whole.  His reasoning remains opaque, though there remains no evidence that it is complicated.  He said he worked with Democrats to get health care reform passed in Massachusetts (undeniable since the Commonwealth Legislature he worked with up there was 85% Democratic); he accused the President of dismissing Republican input when drafting the Affordable Care Act.  This is ridiculous; the President’s health care reform is clearly largely-predicated on health care regulations originally proposed by Conservatives–as President Obama points-out!  The President also notes with some humor that Governor Romney advanced what was achieved in Massachusetts as “a model for the nation;” the President agrees that it was.

9:58 pm: Question #4: Health care.  Governor Romney focuses entirely on the anxieties of small businesses; small business remains the most-trusted “institution” in America, which is probably more of a testament to declining social capital nationwide than it is to the competence of all small businesses as such.  President Obama keeps the focus on the failures of health care provision by insurance companies, and argues that he has made pragmatic adaptations to insure more people and prevent insurance companies from abandoning those who have already paid for care.

9:53 pm: Governor Romney assures us that sound regulations are essential to markets.  (Maybe he believes this; however, we also know that he is a master manipulator of loopholes, so I am hard-pressed to believe he firmly feels this way.  I don’t mean to say that he is insincere in calling for basic market regulations, but that I wouldn’t count on Romney for probity into determining just which regulations we do need.)

President Obama notes that he has instituted the strictest new financial regulations since the Great Depression (invoking the October 1929 Stock Market Crash by allegory).  Governor Romney attacks the President for the ongoing ambiguity of regulations that were authorized 2 years ago but which remain unspecified.

In my opinion, this would have been a good time for President Obama to get a little hot under the collar and say that Senate Republicans should have approved his appointee for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau so that the business of writing and implementing the new regulations could actually end.

9:48 pm: Governor Romney embraces the Ryan-Wyden compromise that followed the mid-2011 “Ryancare” debacle, assuring us that we will retain the choice whether to go on the private health insurance market or remain in the traditional defined-benefit program.

President Obama notes that Medicare has lower administrative costs than private health insurers, and that health insurers, as a business, are going to seek greater efficiency in ways that increase their own profit margin, not pass on cost savings to the government or senior citizens or hospitals or anyone else.  This conversation got heated; in the end, 50 minutes in, Lehrer reasserted control, getting the candidates to agree, much like an iconic episode of King of the Hill, to simply coexist: RESOLVED, the candidates offer a sharp contrast on Medicare.

They finish with Question #3 5 minutes over-time.

9:44 pm: OK, we’re on to Medicare now.  Both men take off their gloves.  Governor Romney attacks President Obama for cutting $716 billion in 10-year Medicare outlays through the Affordable Care Act (though Congress actually managed to do this without cutting seniors’ benefits!), and now President Obama attacks Governor Romney for proposing a version of his running mate Paul Ryan (R-WI)’s proposal to replace Medicare’s defined-benefits with a voucher for new senior citizens to buy health insurance.

9:40 pm: President Obama says the policy differences between himself and Governor Romney are probably small.  The President has a well-developed sense of fair play; the Governor is generally on the attack (as he probably has to be), but he hasn’t really violated the spirit of fair play thus far.

That said, President Obama made reference by allegory to Governor Romney’s “47%” comments, saying that those who consider themselves entitled to Federal assistance are not his concern.  I don’t know if I should think of that as a pulled punch, or if the message was received.

9:39 pm: “States are the laboratories of democracy.  Don’t have the Federal Government tell them how to (administer their spending and regulatory decisions).”  It’s like the philosopher Martin Heidegger once said, “Only a Republican Governor can save us now…”

9:34 pm: When President Obama takes the opportunity to scold Governor Romney for being ideological, he claims a victory.  Romney probably sees the setup but he sticks to his guns–as he probably has to.  President Obama gets Governor Romney to agree that he won’t raise taxes overall at all in order to reduce the deficit; Romney continues to use the pitiful supply-side defense to argue that tax cuts will more than offset concurring spending cuts and bring the budget closer to, rather than further from, balance.  The supply-side proposition has never borne-out in practice; he is clearly playing to his base, and since independent voters seem skeptical towards what Republicans have to say about lower overall tax rates on the rich now, I suspect that doubling-down on his tax proposals here will lose Romney some of the ins he got on the President by scolding him for inaction on deficit-reduction.

9:32 pm: Romney is on the offensive on the deficit discussion.  The President gave a good account of the initial deficit reduction achieved since early 2010–the spending reductions in Medicare through the Affordable Care Act, the initial round of Defense spending cuts.  But Governor Romney scolds the President for not supporting the Bowles-Simpson Deficit Commission’s recommendations, or proposing his own $4 trillion deficit-reduction plan.

9:27 pm: Governor Romney jokingly assures the President he means nothing personal in promising to repeal “Obamacare;” he says the same to Jim Lehrer regarding his intention to eliminate Federal spending on PBS.  He even adds that he likes Big Bird (and Lehrer).  He is trying to angle the cosmetic perspective.  Partisan dissembling aside, I really do think Romney is a good, comfortable debater.

9:25 pm: I don’t want to spend much time analyzing the optics of the 2 candidates’ behaviors, but President Obama tends to look down when Governor Romney is speaking to him.  Romney speaks testily at those times, though it seems more like a product of anxiousness than animosity; still, he looks directly at the person he is talking to.  The President is normally very loose; he needs to get back into the debate swing.  Governor Romney, on the whole, seems to embrace the pressure.

9:22 pm: Governor Romney repeats a charge I’ve heard before, that many small business-owners have to pay the top marginal income tax rate, which can inhibit their ability to invest in new capacity or employment.  He accuses the President of proposing to raise their income tax rate from 35% to 40% (he means 39.5%) by letting George W. Bush’s top marginal income tax rate expire.  That is probably his best line of attack against the President on taxes; President Obama responds with a skeptical account of the initial efficacy of the George W. Bush income tax cuts in 2001 and 2002.

9:21 pm: Grand Moderator Jim Lehrer admonishes the candidates that they are waay past their first 15 minutes, which is true.

9:17 pm: We just heard the 1st of Governor Romney’s zingers!  I’m sure of it!  He accused the President of repeating the same favored accusation over and over again and hoping it becomes true.  (That’s a bit hypocritical considering the party convention that nominated him a month ago was literally themed on a frequently-repeated misquote.)  He claims he wants to lower tax rates and eliminate tax loopholes; he doesn’t address the fact that it is not deficit-neutral to lock-in low income tax rates on the rich in an era of chronic large budget deficits.

9:13 pm: Governor Romney is doing well.  He has gone point-by-point on President Obama’s criticisms, adding in a few of his own.  He is stronger on some points than on others.  Romney insists he wants to target “tax relief” on the middle class; he continues to withhold specifics.  Is there a reason why he cannot offer any specifics about the tax loopholes he will close?  That’s a bit weird.

He tells us that the rapid growth in drilling and mining has entirely occurred on private rather than Federal land; whether that’s true seems irrelevant, since it seems to concede the point that the Obama Administration is not obstructing domestic energy production.

9:10 pm: President Obama responds by saying that the differences between himself and Governor Romney on energy policy are mostly-illusory, though he notes that he is more-committed than Romney to investment in renewable energy such as solar and wind power.  He attacks Governor Romney for a $5 trillion top-heavy tax cut; he also attacks Governor Romney’s proposed military budget as being far in excess of what the Generals have asked for, implying that it is pork-laden.

9:08 pm: “I know what it takes to get small business growing again…”  Mitt Romney doesn’t spend a lot of time discussing particulars, but he does mention what he considers the current hostile regulatory environment and the trade violations of the People’s Republic of China, simultaneous with a typical pitch in favor of more free trade.

9:05 pm: President Obama takes Question #1 first; he starts his discussion about economic management noting the bailout of Detroit, which worked-out for him, the United Auto Workers, and the General Motors and Chrysler Corporations.  He follows-up with a discussion of the investments he wants to make in public goods such as basic education and scientific research.

9:04 pm: President Barack Hussein Obama and Massachusetts Governor Willard Mitt Romney (heh, Willard…) come out.  It’s on.

Jim Lehrer did not have to submit his 6 questions to the Commission on Presidential Debates for approval; this could be interesting…

8:59 pm: At 1 minute, 36 seconds to go, silence is now enforced at Lehrer’s command…Gods, why is it so tense?!

Oh, right, I’m watching on C-Span; nothing to block out the angst of a day of unfiltered politics.

8:49 pm: Jim Lehrer comes out to lay down the law.  He’s pretty imposing.  He promises to single-out any one who hisses, or boos, or even who cheers or applauds.  No one is to interrupt the debate and the ability of the public to view it.  He says that the only reason he doesn’t normally warn people he will expel them for making noise or contaminating the vibe is because “I’ve done this a few times, and now everyone knows the drill.”  Stay out of the way of this train (by which I mean the series of 2-minute responses and rejoinders the candidates are allotted to answer Lehrer’s 6 prepared questions).

8:39 pm: A Co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates implored the audience to turn off their cell phones…People are watching 2 Presidential candidates debate right before them, and the Co-chairman of the Debates felt sufficiently-concerned about cell phone interruptions that he felt obligated to tell the assembled audience that “Surely we can make it for 90 minutes without these things”?  I have no deeper thought to offer about this absurdity at this time than “Saddening, and maddening.”


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