If Wednesday night’s presidential debate was a boxing match, Mitt Romney may be said to have won the first round on points. He did that by seeming aggressive and animated, and he brought the fight to President Obama. However, as Gail Collins said in the New York Times Thursday morning, "Romney had that funny look on his face whenever President Obama was talking. Somewhere between a person who is trying to overlook an unpleasant smell and a guy who is trying to restrain himself from pointing out that his car is much nicer than your car." Her comment reminds me of the cover of the New Yorker magazine last week. It had a drawing of Romney riding on a horse behind a chauffer who had the reins.
The fight is by no means over. Many a fighter has won the first round against Joe Lewis or Muhammad Ali and ended on his back at the end of the match.
The one Romney zinger for the evening was, “You may be entitled to your own opinion, your own plane and your own house, but not your own facts.” For him to say that required considerable chutzpah. Throughout the debate, Romney denied he supported the hard right’s platform of tax cuts. To quote the New York Times editorial page, “Virtually every time Mr. Romney spoke, he misrepresented the platform on which he and Paul Ryan are actually running. ... Mr. Romney claimed, against considerable evidence, that he had no intention of cutting taxes on the rich or enacting a tax that would increase the deficit."
"That simply isn’t true," the editorial staff at the Times wrote Thursday. "Mr. Romney wants to restore the Bush-era tax cut that expires at the end of the year and largely benefits the wealthy. He wants to end the estate tax and the gift tax, providing a huge benefit only to those with multimillion-dollar estates, at a cost of more than $1 trillion over a decade to the deficit. He wants to preserve the generous rates on capital gains that benefit himself personally and others at his economic level. And he wants to cut everyone’s tax rates by 20 percent, which again would be a gigantic boon to the wealthy."
Somehow, with this tax structure, Romney insists that he won’t reduce the defense budget, will provide more money for education, and will overturn Obamacare but keep the best parts. Also, he will be kind to the needy and unemployed. If you believe any of that, you believe in the Good Fairy Theory. Keep sleeping but don’t bother looking under your pillow in the morning.
It is not hard to understand Romney’s strategy, especially when you know his history: He flip-flops whenever it suits his purpose. In the primaries, he abandoned all the liberal principles he subscribed to as governor of Massachusetts, a liberal state. He moved to become as close as possible with the Tea Party. Now, in Wednesday’s debate, he once more claimed, in effect, to be a liberal. The fox has once more changed to a pussycat.
Obama’s performance at the debate was disappointing to many of his admirers. His practice of looking down while Romney was speaking in order to make notes made him look like he was pretending to be asleep. But when he spoke, he illustrated the difference between being a would-be president and a real one. His remarks showed his careful concern for his responsibilities. He limited himself to facts, not sharp responses to Romney’s charges. He refused to be drawn into the false debate of big government vs. not-big government. For him, the problem was not size, but what the government needed to do in all areas to benefit the country and, especially, the middle class. Romney’s response to this was the abstract "smaller is better" idea--not a series of specific proposals.
The best moments for Obama were when he passionately defended Obamacare, Medicare and Medicaid. It is this Obama who we can expect to see in future rounds. In the long run, it is this Obama who will ensure that Romney’s last flip-flop will leave him flat on his back at the end of the fight.