Dueling philosophies on display in Denver
Debate One is history — and here’s a take you probably won’t read anywhere else in America: This was an interesting and informative encounter. And though he might have benefited from a pre-debate espresso, Barack Obama nevertheless had a pretty good night.
Now, I’m acutely aware that mine isn’t the majority opinion. On Fox News, a jubilant Sean Hannity seemed ready to pop open the champagne. Across the dial, Chris Matthews’ head was ready to explode, so great was his frustration that Obama hadn’t gone for the jugular the way he would have if only he’d spent long, instructive evenings watching MSNBC.
So why did I like the overall debate and, specifically, Obama’s performance? Partly because Obama didn’t go for the jugular. Nor, really, did Romney. This was a calm, civil, substantive, edifying discussion that gave a deeper sense of both men’s views.
For my money, Obama laid out a clear philosophical vision and connected it to his own budgetary plans, while explaining, fairly, why Romney’s approach would slash many of the programs Americans value.
Romney played looser with the facts, but viewers still should have come away with a much clearer sense of his philosophy and what it means.
And now for those contrasting visions. The Democratic incumbent believes that an economically healthy middle class is essential to a prosperous nation, and that middle-class spending will stimulate the economy. He thinks that federal dollars spent to better educate and train Americans and thus help boost them into the middle class are vital. For him, protecting that spending is more important than retaining the Bush-era tax rates on upper earners.
Romney, by contrast, believes that small businesses are essential to a fuller recovery. When Obama noted that letting the Bush tax cuts expire for upper earners would hit only 3 percent of small firms, Romney countered that those companies account for half of all small-business jobs.
From Romney’s perspective, the importance of small business makes it an economic imperative not to raise marginal rates on upper earners. Indeed, for him, the only acceptable way to get new revenue is through growth. That outlook, combined with his (laudable) contention that it’s immoral for one generation to heap debt upon the next, dictates the much deeper spending cuts he favors.
The two men also have very different yardsticks for evaluating government programs. Obama asks whether they are worthwhile enough to justify higher rates on upper earners. Romney asks whether a program is essential enough to justify borrowing more from China to fund it.
As Obama noted several times, Romney’s no-new-taxes fiscal framework, combined with the greater defense spending he favors, would necessitate sharp reductions in domestic programs. It would also mean shifting significant Medicare costs onto the next generation of seniors.
Romney tried to sidestep the latter reality by saying that under his plan, future seniors would have the option of staying in traditional Medicare. He left out this crucial detail: If a traditional Medicare plan costs more than the amount Romney’s Medicare premium supports would allot seniors, they would have to pay the difference themselves.
So whose overall sense of the economy is closer to the truth?
As Obama observed, this country has experimented with both approaches. The path the president favors resembles that which Bill Clinton took from 1993 to 2000; the course Romney hopes to chart is akin to that which George W. Bush followed from 2001 to 2008. The economy during the Clinton years was considerably more robust than during Bush’s two terms.
Another reality that came through, or started to, was that though neither candidate has a fully fleshed-out fiscal plan, there are far larger holes in Romney’s. The Republican insisted that the across-the-board tax cut he favors really isn’t a $5 trillion tax cut because he will offset it fully by closing loopholes and deductions, a base broadening he insists won’t raise middle-class tax burdens. Yet he again refused to specify how he’d accomplish something that the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center says can’t be done. Instead, he claimed that six other studies have said the Tax Policy Center’s analysis was “completely wrong.” Not so.
In sum, this high-profile encounter gave viewers a clearer sense of the dueling philosophies and priorities. In so doing, it set the table for the campaign that lies ahead.
Scot Lehigh is a columnist for The Boston Globe.