There seems to be near universal agreement Mitt Romney handily won the first debate against Barack Obama. Perspectives differ, of course, depending on whether your preferred candidate was the gore-er or gore-ee. But few honest observers can really deny the former Massachusetts governor got the better of the president — and but good.
Excuses are predictably offered from those aligned with the Obama camp, ranging from the conveniently self-fulfilling (Bob Woodward’s prediction it will “come out that something — presidential or personal — distracted the president”) to the patently absurd (Al Gore’s assertion Obama is somehow acutely sensitive to altitude changes).
As in all such public displays, neither victory nor defeat was attributable to any single element. Romney brought the whole package, besting his opponent in substance, demeanor, tone and any number of tactical subtleties. I shall leave it to connoisseurs of style to comment on the aesthetic aspects of Romney’s win. The following I restrict to economic arguments.
Conservatives have been anxiously awaiting a competent messenger, comparable to a Milton Friedman, Art Laffer or Jack Kemp and received one in Paul Ryan. But conservatives had been nervously hoping Mitt Romney, as the actual standard bearer, was up to the task.
It seems he was. On tax policy especially, Romney did a formidable job in deconstructing the myths proffered by the president and his surrogates and of outlining why the Romney plan is needed.
Romney explained a pro-growth tax plan that would reduce rates across the board while eliminating many of the deductions and credits that have been piled into the tax code over the years. It’s a sound program that confuses liberals —apparently including Obama, who seemed flummoxed by the math.
The fundamental difficulty that liberals have with such a tax plan is that their overall aim for tax policy is not to stimulate economic growth — it is, at its base, about “fairness” and leveling. President Obama fails to understand the mathematics because, to him, tax policy is not about growth — it’s solely about revenue.
Romney’s tax plan, on the other hand, is designed to encourage economic growth and to get more people actually paying, rather than consuming, taxes. Revenue will increase — not simply because deductions are reduced, as Obama scolded, but because the combination of eliminating deductions and reducing the rates shifts income from shelters to taxable activity and the stimulation of business activity encouraged by a lower, predictable rate on marginal and investment income will add jobs, meaning more people conducting economic activity, paying taxes and getting off government programs.
Obama also betrayed his lack of economic acumen when responding to a question on entitlements by stating (incredulously and with a straight face) Social Security was structurally sound.
He seemed no better informed on health care. Evidently, his advisors failed to relate to him how much health insurance premiums have increased under his watch. And while he could have done a little better job of it, it was still fun to watch Romney try to explain the difference between state and federal roles.
On all of these points, Romney came out strides ahead of the president by effectively and surgically wielding economic veracity as a weapon. The key to Romney’s substantive victory was in not simply falling back on the safe, comfortable approach of relying only on Obama’s domestic record to make his point. That would be far too easy. Instead, it was by going on the offensive and using economic principles to show that not only was the president’s approach the wrong one, but also that there exists a superior one.
This one high point does not, of course, mean the election is over. Obama will be far better prepared next time, and Romney will need to work to remain a step ahead. He will need to ably explain the 47 percent comment and make the case for his and his running mate’s sound, but complicated, Medicare and Medicaid plans. Romney will need to demonstrate how the fiscal crisis was not a result of conservative policies and why Obama’s hyper-Keynesian spending frenzies could not, and will not, ameliorate the economic situation. And he needs to explain all of this to an electorate whose infamously short attention span is cultivated by today’s pop culture news media.
In other words, it’s not going to get any easier. But if what we saw in the first debate is any indication, the Republican candidate is capable. Stand by for round two.