Last night's presidential debate between Democratic incumbent Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney was far more substantive and wonky than most watchers would have ever predicted. More important, given Romney's strong showing and nearly complete domination of Obama, it shows that the race between them - already tight - is only going to get tigher over the last weeks of the election season. That's good news for the Romney camp.
At the same time, and despite multiple attempts by the moderator of the debate and the participants themselves to stake out radically different visions of the role of government, Obama and Romney were far more similar than different when they talked policy. That's bad news for the country.
Last night may have been the first night that many Americans - including diehard Republicans and possibly even the former Massachusetts governor himself - could really envision Romney occupying the White House and running the federal government. He was by turns charming, insistent, deferential, heated, and always on point.
Romney has always come off as almost a pretend-human - he wears blue jeans like medieval monks wore hair shirts - but last night the Romneybot easily passed the Turing Test. He had answers for just about everything and, most flattering to his candidacy, they were not perfect or glib. They were engaged and responsive to what was going on in front of him. He wisely stressed the core of his case to replace Obama, which was the president's own record. Twenty-plus millions (still) out of work, an anemic recovery (indeed, a recovery that is in many ways worse than the recession itself was), a failure to prioritize (his best large point might have simply been that Obama picked the wrong time to undertake health care reform when he should have focused instead on the economy).
For his part, Obama appeared off from the moment he started talking, invoking his anniversary and giving a shout-out to the missus in the audience. It was a forced gesture at best, seemingly calculated to draw oohs from the crowd, and it was all downhill from there. Whenever answering a question, he seemed to pile on answers and throw out phrase after phrase like a contestant from the old $25,000 Pyramid game show, desperately searching for that magic string of words would hook the audience or flatten Romney.
It's a small point but a telling one: If you're what used to be called the leader of the free world, the custodian of the largest economy and mightiest nation on Earth, and you're talking about ending tax breaks for the owners of corporate jets, it's not your night to shine.
Early polls of debate watchers scored the event a clear win for Romney (67 percent in a CNN survey thought the former governor won versus 25 percent for the president) which is all the worse for Obama since he was expected to win by most viewers.
So there's plenty of good news for Romney and his Republicans, and a lot of long nights ahead for Obama and his supporters.
The bad news from last night's debate affects those of us who suit up for neither Team Red or Team Blue and the 60 percent majority who feel government is already trying to do too much. Debate moderator Jim Lehrer constantly drew attention to the notion that Obama and Romney were in fundamental disagreement over the size, scope, and function of government. That they had radically different visions for the United States when it came to the issues under discussion. The candidates gamely obliged, saying yes to each invocation of hard-core splits.
But such claims were nowhere to be found in what the candidates were actually talking about. To be sure, Obama played the role of traditional liberal. He stressed a need to balance respect for free enterprise and freedom (the "genius" of America, he declared at one point) with a muscular vision of a large government that helped people out every day and in every way (he unconvincingly linked this vision to Abraham Lincoln's support for land-grant colleges during the Civil War). He openly embraced the phrase Obamacare to describe his signature legislative accomplishment from his first (only?) term in office. He defended Dodd-Frank financial regulations not so much on the grounds that it was good policy but that the only possible alternative was zero regulation. He talked about adding even more teachers (ostensibly paid for from the federal till) and never touching the old-age entitlements (Medicare, Social Security, and the large chunk of Medicaid that goes to seniors) that are bankrupting the country.
Romney pointed to all this and defined himself as having a boldly different vision, one that...supported the private sector and individual initiative and achievement and...a virtually indistinguishablly big government.
When it came to all the major spending elements in the federal budget, Romney is far, far more like Obama than he is different. When it comes to Medicare, his vision of "premium support" or vouchers with which seniors would buy care is so far off in the distance that it might as well not exist at all. Since 1975, Medicare spending per enrollee in real dollars has doubled even as the numbers of enrollees doubled. That's not in spite of reform efforts - it's because of them. The system is the problem.
Romney stressed that nobody anywhere near the age of 65 had anything to worry about, that things wouldn't change for them. Which is another way of saying that we will keep kicking the can down the road until there is no more road (and then we'll keep kicking it anyway). He stressed that he wasn't going to cut education funding. That we needed to keep plowing more dollars into defense spending (without mentioning the 70-percent-plus increase in real funding to the military over the last dozen years). That he wasn't going to repeal and replace "all" of Obamacare. His praise of his signature state-level health-care reform in Massachusetts is troubling, to say the least, given that state's massively expensive health care spending. That while Dodd-Frank was bad (and it is) he wasn't going to do away with all regulation. That he's going to help "small businesses," help kids go to college, and on and on.
In his campaign literature, Romney stresses that he will bring government spending - the single most-meaningful proxy for the size and scope of government - down to 20 percent of GDP "by the end of his first term" (Obama in contrast would spend over 22 percent). Let's leave aside some inconvenient facts for the current moment. Such as that Romney has never credibly indicated how he will accomplish that, especially given his repeated commitments to fully funding Medicare, Social Security, and defense spending at current or higher levels. Or that the Republican budget plan authored by his running mate Paul Ryan and passed by the House earlier this year forecasts federal revenues over the next decade as averaging just 18 percent of GDP, thereby guaranteeing 10 more years of deficits.
The plain fact is that even at 20 percent that level of government is far too much for us to afford. Since 1945, the federal government has managed to raise revenue equal to more than 20 percent of GDP precisely once - in 2000 - and that was in a year where the feds spent the equivalent of 18.2 percent of GDP (did we go hungry or unclothed or uneducated in 2000?). And that's assuming that Romney is actually able to deliver on numbers.
Which brings us to an issue that haunted the debate hall last night: The recent history of the last time a Republican president occupied the White House. The Republican Party has not remotely come to terms with just how disastrous George W. Bush's two terms in office were in terms of expanding government. That for six of his years in power he had a Republican Congress only makes the disaster more complete. Across every possible area of activity, Bush and the Republicans performed not just poorly but abysmally. They increased spending and executive power and regulations and war and entitlements and just about everything else you can imagine. That's a millstone around the GOP and especially its standard-bearer in the 2012 election. Republicans clearly have a better grasp of the rhetoric of limited-government, but their actions speak louder than words (look at the chart above of federal outlays per capita and despair).
It's genuinely pathetic when Obama trots out his predecessor George W. Bush as the catch-all answer for why everything is rotten nearly four years into an Obama presidency, but he's got a point: Bush did drive us into a ditch. That Obama has spun his wheels and dug us in even deeper in no way changes that fact. But it does mean that when Romney lays out a vision of government that at best trims a bit off where Bush and Obama have landed us, it's not going to be particularly convincing no matter how well he performs in a debate.