Mitt Romney finally found a worthy debate opponent. In this year’s first presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, it was striking how much mutual respect for each other, and for discussion of issues, existed. Romney was able to represent himself more freely and frankly than in any of the primary debates. It was the perfect format for presenting at his best a man who’s been badly maligned of late. Even better for him, the subject matter was nicely crafted for a talented balance sheet man.
Fiscal, budgetary and economic policy dominated the debate – especially the tax side. Both candidates agreed that both individual and corporate income tax rates should be reduced. Romney emphasizes reducing deductions, credits and exemptions to make tax rate reductions deficit-neutral. Obama emphasized creating tax benefits for companies investing in the United States. On the broad issue of deficit reduction, Romney has ruled out increasing revenue as part of the equation, and reaffirmed that stand early in the debate.
Following up on the Simpson-Bowles recommendations, named for Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, co-chairs of President Obama’s Deficit Commission, Romney stepped away from the issue saying, “I have my own plan.” Obama responded to Romney’s chiding him for not grabbing and running with Simpson-Bowles more aggressively, indicating his administration is putting it before Congress now.
Neither candidate discussed jobs programs or legislation to any degree. Both were disposed to discuss job growth in relation to fiscal factors favoring fuller employment, and in relation to priority sectors – mainly education, and then energy to a lesser degree. However, they both put aside any discussion of job creation programs per se. In fact they explicitly agreed upon education being the key factor in furthering economic growth and gainful employment.
Romney emphasized the importance of educational innovations at state levels, noting that federal overhead and bureaucracy get in the way of maximizing the return on education dollars. He acknowledged some good ideas in programs such as Secretary Arne Duncan’s “Race to the Top”. Obama highlighted the need to get businesses and community colleges working together in setting up training programs suitable to qualify graduates for jobs that exist right now. Romney concurred in that with no caveats.
Health care discussions also brought both candidates together at least enough to agree that the most important goal in this sector is to get health costs down. Given the origin of Obamacare in the Romneycare model, Romney was cautious to parse and limit his criticisms of the program, objecting to the creation of an unelected, appointed board of people with authority over choices of treatments. Romney particularly pointed out that bogeyman feature to leave himself flexibility to chime in and claim credit for innovations achieved by his service in Massachusetts.
On Medicare, the candidates concurred that the voucher system issue is the main difference marking their plans for the popular senior health program. Romney got the opportunity to reinforce the message that introduction of vouchers would only be an option affecting future generations of eligibles – not persons currently or soon-to-be enrolled in Medicare. He drove home the same point with respect to any plans for changes in Social Security, but there was no significant discussion of privatization options contemplated on the Republican side.
Obama noted he “suspected” that he and Romney both fundamentally agreed that Social Security could be handled with the same kind of tweaking Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill did during the 1980s. Romney took no exception to the implication that Social Security otherwise is structurally sound.
In the energy sector, both Romney and Obama emphasized the need to boost domestic energy production. What discussion emerged on energy issues revealed little, but served rather to highlight the competing energy industries – constituencies variously favored by the one party more than the other.
Public need for business regulation, notably financial industry regulation, came up as a discussion thread throughout the debate. Romney acknowledged the need for degrees of regulation in the marketplace, but got specific in objecting to certain Dodd-Frank provisions which he claims hurt smaller regional banks.
Ever since he emerged from the Republicans’ lengthy debate series, Romney’s mantra has been “jobs, jobs, jobs”. His overall plan as he presented it during the debate, however, related only indirectly to job growth. Romney’s overall plan encompasses energy independence, trade expansion, competitive skills, deficit reduction and small business issues. As he addressed these points during the debate he stressed the idea of creating favorable economic growth conditions. Making the jobs argument, however, took a back seat to establishing viability – if not actual credibility– as a moderate candidate.
Romney’s tax and deficit reduction positions have been vulnerable to repeated attacks on two main fronts: fairness of tax rates and the treatment of high-income versus middle-income earnings; and questions of how rate reductions alongside Bush tax cut extensions and increased military spending would impact the Federal budget. Will the latter mushroom federal deficits and debt even worse than before?
Romney proceeded onto a new mantra, tax relief for the middle class, but would not be moved to reveal which deductions, credits or exemptions would be modified or eliminated to make his planned rate reductions possible. One way or another, he would have to take on a few sacred cows to offset rate reductions with revenue recapture from other tax provisions.
He managed to get through the debate without getting specific. His assertions made for a good moderate sounding voice of support for the middle class. He emphasized for the record his “number one principle…there’ll be no tax cut that adds to the deficit.” It echoed Bush I’s “read my lips”, but so it went. “I will not, under any circumstances, raise taxes on middle-income families,” said Romney.
Romney took special pains to highlight the “last 3 percent of businesses” employing large numbers of workers and likely to be impacted by raising the 35 percent income tax rate to 40 percent. It was a valid point, and not an easy one to communicate in a large audience forum. He also took pains to emphasize the increased tax revenue that would result from economic growth, hence getting more people working. It makes sense in economic theory, but probably only got the attention of his own choir. There are so many economic variables and cross currents at work affecting our economy right now that no case for the economy performing predictably sounds very compelling. However, the discussion made Romney sound and appear more moderate and Obama rightly acknowledged the points.
More than political leanings, though, Romney revealed his ability and style of business communication in a way that he could not do before. He made a good pitch and he fine-tuned – or actually revised – a number his own positions. Romney remains more a ledger guy than a political guy, and that may or may not fit with Washington, D.C. or the Oval Office. It does seem established now that he and the president are able to step onstage together and engage each other respectfully and constructively. In that fact, he has a better opponent than any of those he faced during the primary debates.