Romney makes strides in first debate

Guest Editorial
Wednesday’s presidential debate was a clear win for Republican challenger Mitt Romney, who was more focused and articulate than President Barack Obama. The president’s lackluster performance had to disappoint even his most ardent supporters.

Conventional wisdom suggests the challenger has the advantage over the incumbent in the first debate. If so, Romney made the most of it.

The former Massachusetts governor and founder of Bain Capital was pleasantly but persistently on the attack all night. He promised tax cuts, balanced budgets and a revived economy that would put an end to lingering high unemployment rates.

Meanwhile, the president — burdened by an economy that continues to stagger — seemed uninterested in entering the fray. His answers wandered, and he was loath to counter-attack.

Romney, for instance, repeatedly charged that Obama planned to make $716 billion in cuts from existing Medicare patients. The president never acknowledged or attempted to refute the claim. As such, Romney’s debatable assertion hung in the air unchallenged.

Contrast that with Romney’s repeated denial of Obama’s claim that the challenger was going to worsen the deficit with a $5 trillion tax cut. Romney said it wasn’t his plan and vowed he would not approve a single tax cut that would add to the deficit. Obama had no follow-up response.

He should have. Romney’s numbers don’t add up. He can’t make huge tax cuts — 20 percent, he promises — and add trillions to military spending without adding to the deficit. He says he will replace revenue lost in tax cuts by eliminating loopholes and cutting unnecessary government spending.

Romney has been consistently vague about his plan’s details. And with good reason. Detailing the loopholes he will close will allow experts to vet his plan and it will anger those who will see higher taxes. The few cuts he suggests — such as stopping funding for PBS — are laughably inadequate. Big Bird just doesn’t make that much money.

Romney clearly doesn’t want to acknowledge that the level of cuts he suggests would be unacceptable to the American public.

Obama’s numbers are just as shaky. He says he has proposed a $4 trillion deficit-reduction plan that relies on $2.50 in cuts for every $1 in new tax revenue. But he is using smoke and mirrors on the cuts, such as using creative bookkeeping to hide spending on Medicare reimbursements to doctors and relying on so-called war savings on expenses that were covered with borrowed money in the first place.

Take away the gimmicks, and Obama’s plan depends heavily on tax increases.

Fact-stretching and spin are an expected part of these debates. To the candidates’ credit, they stayed away from zingers and personal attacks. One would hope that the more partisan crowd, particularly among conservatives, would recognize that candidates can disagree without demonizing each other.

There is a clear choice in November. The president believes government has a major role in bolstering the economy as well as providing opportunity and safeguards for American citizens. The challenger believes that a large government strangles a free market that otherwise will provide the innovation necessary to power America in the 21st century.

Both candidates say history debunks the other side’s argument. Wednesday night, however, Obama failed to make his case. He didn’t tout his signature achievement — which even he calls Obamacare — nor did he convincingly argue that the next four years would be an improvement over his first term.

Rather, it was Romney who was much more assertive and successful in making his point. With little pushback, he promised to balanced the budget, cut government spending and improve the economy. In so doing, he has likely made this a much closer race.