Presidential Debate: Performance vs. Substance

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Reactions to Wednesday night’s first presidential debate seem to have reached a general consensus along these lines:

  • Governor Romney’s debate performance was stronger than President Obama’s
  • Many of Romney’s key statements were substantively inaccurate or misleading, but Obama didn’t respond very effectively
  • Performance matters more than substance, and so Romney won the debate

As Rachel Maddow pointed out last night, challengers have usually performed very well in their first debate against incumbent presidents, the most notable exception being Senator Bob Dole’s debate with President Clinton. A common strategy is to attack the president’s policies, which are clearly on the record, while remaining vague enough about one’s own plans to inspire hope–or should I say wishful thinking–among the voters. Mitt Romney has perfected this strategy, and it worked for him pretty well the other night. How much it contributes to useful policy debate is another question. In an earlier post, I quoted Ezra Klein’s remark, “Quite simply, the Romney campaign isn’t adhering to the minimum standards required for a real policy conversation.”

Steve Benen has been serving as a one-man truth squad, reporting on the remarkable number of discrepancies between Romney’s statements and reality as most of us know it. I can’t vouch for every single objection he raises, but he does document his points carefully. Benen’s take on Romney’s debate performance is here.

President Obama was particularly flummoxed by Romney’s denial that he was proposing a $5 trillion tax cut. That figure is based on the analysis of the governor’s proposal by the Tax Policy Center:

This plan would extend the 2001-03 tax cuts, reduce individual income tax rates by 20 percent, eliminate taxation of investment income of most taxpayers (including individuals earning less than $100,000, and married couples earning less than $200,000), eliminate the estate tax, reduce the corporate income tax rate, and repeal the alternative minimum tax (AMT) and the high-income taxes enacted in 2010’s health-reform legislation.

We estimate that these components would reduce revenues by $456 billion in 2015 relative to a current policy baseline. According to statements by Governor Romney and his advisors, the remainder of the plan will include policies to offset this revenue loss, although there are no details on how that would be achieved.

The $5 trillion figure comes from accumulating the annual revenue reductions over ten years (a common practice in fiscal projections) and rounding the result to the nearest trillion. When confronted with this figure, Romney doesn’t try to clarify it or revise it; he just denies it.

If we could agree on at least a ballpark figure for the magnitude of the Romney tax cuts, then we could have a substantive discussion of how to make up that revenue, since he insists that his tax cut will not increase the deficit. One way he can do it is by closing tax “loopholes,” but he refuses to say which deductions he would eliminate. He does claim that eliminating or capping deductions for wealthy taxpayers (incomes over $250,000) will make his proposal revenue neutral for that group. One problem with that is that it undercuts his own argument for cutting taxes in the first place, which is to give “job creators” more money to invest in new jobs. A second problem is that cutting deductions doesn’t make the numbers add up unless you hit very popular ones, such as the charitable deduction and home interest deduction, and also eliminate them for more taxpayers than just the very wealthy.

The other way to offset the big tax cut–and another matter for serious debate if Romney would engage in it–is to create a broader tax base by growing the economy. Romney claims that he will do that, but he provides no details. This is the familiar article of faith among “supply-siders” that tax cuts are always good for the economy, and so they can pay for themselves. The recent record on this is not encouraging, since Republican tax cuts from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush have created large deficits. Faced with those deficits, Reagan was willing to put taxes back on the table, but recent Republicans have insisted that the budget axe fall entirely on domestic spending. Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, is famous for proposing unpopular budget cuts. But Romney avoids talking about such cuts, except for the vague promise to make people less dependent on government, as if throwing them off Medicaid were doing them a favor.

Romney’s wonderful “performance” is like a magic act–It’s mostly sleight-of-hand. He shows us a big tax cut, but if we question how he will pay for it, it suddenly disappears. He’s not really cutting taxes for the wealthy, you see, because he’s closing (unspecified) “loopholes,” and the rest is offset by “growing the economy.” He substitutes the dubious magic of supply-side economics for the inconvenient fact that he has a certain amount of revenue to find. (When Obama tried to bring that up, Romney hit him with the zinger that being President doesn’t give him the right to his own facts–point to Romney if you’re keeping score.) Paul Ryan worked the same magic with his budget plan; he instructed the Congressional Budget Office to assume that his tax cuts were revenue neutral without providing any supporting evidence. (And the CBO still couldn’t find too much deficit reduction in his plan because of his refusal to cut defense spending or allow the Bush tax cuts to expire. He achieved his reputation as a “deficit hawk” just by being tough on domestic spending.)

Whichever candidate won the debate, the American electorate lost. We deserve a serious policy debate; what we got was obfuscation and befuddlement.

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