The first debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is now history. For liberals – or, for that matter, lovers of common sense – it wasn’t a pretty sight. The governor was at ease and vigorous, he spoke fluently and insisted on delivering his message; the president appeared withdrawn and at times even passive, he often spoke hesitantly, and when he answered an attack from Romney – and it was Romney who had the air of a man moving swiftly forward – his answers were often fragmentary and allusive. In a strange way, he even looked smaller, thinner, a man of less weight.
Romney was the man asserting his view of things and his smartly delivered assertions carried the day. Consider their disagreement on taxes. Romney announced that he wasn’t going to raise takes on anybody (on the contrary: he would cut individual income tax rates by 20 percent) and that his tax plan wouldn’t add to the deficit. Obama wants to raise taxes on the wealthy so they would be paying about as much as they did during the Clinton years. Obama said that Romney’s tax plan was a 5 trillion dollar tax cut which would either enlarge the national debt or, on the other hand, require an increase in taxes on the middle class.
Romney continually and forcefully said that his plan had no 5 trillion dollar tax cut and he did everything short of calling the president a liar on that issue. He said his lowering-taxes plan could be paid for by closing tax loopholes and ending certain deductions. Actually, the non-partisan Tax Policy Center has calculated that Romney’s plan would cost the government about $5 trillion and could not be paid for merely by closing loop holes and eliminating deductions. It would, in fact, add about $2,000 to the taxes paid by a typical middle-income family, unless the shortfall was added to the national debt. Obama had mathematics on his side; he was right, but it never looked that way.
Romney was even able to trot out the Republicans’ baseless claim that Obama had cut 716 billion from Medicare in order to pay for Obamacare and, by implication, deprived Medicare beneficiaries of benefits. But the fact is that the 716 billion will not affect the guaranteed benefits in Medicare. The cut takes away the overpayment to insurance companies which was part of the prescription drug program designed and passed by Republicans, and from hospitals and drug companies who agreed to the cut, foreseeing that they would make up the loss by the taking in added business under Obama’s health plan.
There are other examples, but they’re not worth rehearsing here. The debate was one of those occasions when Obama looked like a man without any fight in him. He never brought up Romney’s outrageous remarks about the 47 percent of Americans who pay no [income] taxes and who, in Romney’s view, live a life of dependency on government handouts. Obama seems to have spent his life avoiding personal, up close, confrontations. The world knows he’s a calculating killer when he needs to be, though only at a distance. But presidential debates are up close confrontations. And if Obama won’t fight for himself, who will? And if not now, when?
The illustration for this post is “Dempsey and Firpo,” painted by George Bellows in 1924. That’s Luis Firpo, “The Bull of the Pampas,” knocking Jack Dempsey, the reigning world heavy weight champion, out of the ring near the end of the first round at the Polo Grounds in 1919. This was one of the greatest boxing matches of the last century. In the first moments of the fight, Firpo had hit Dempsey with a right that set the champion down on one knee. Dempsey got back on his feet to pummel Firpo, knocking the Argentinian to the canvas seven times. In those days there was no neutral corner rule and you could stand over your downed opponent and hit him every time he got up. But close to the end of the round, Firpo trapped Dempsey against the ropes and slugged him with a right to the chin, knocking Dempsey clear out of the ring. The referee gave Dempsey the infamous “slow count,” counting only to four in fourteen seconds, while Dempsey, whose head was badly cut by his crashing onto a sports reporter’s typewriter, was helped back into the ring by the writers at ringside. Dempsey won the fight by a KO in the 57th second of the second round. There’s no moral here about the presidential debates, just a painting of a great fight.