The presidential debate: an editorial sampling

I can't argue much with the conventional wisdom coming out of Wednesday's presidential debate.

Mitt Romney had the upper hand, and outdebating an incumbent is no small feat. Barack Obama seemed unfocused and unwilling to go on the offensive (he seemed to behave like an incumbent with a big lead, despite what the polls say). I also really disliked the format — and thought moderator Jim Lehrer never had control of the proceedings. (However, the social media wags who compared Lehrer to a replacement referee should probably be flagged for piling on.)

And, we learned that Big Bird is NOT Too-Big-To-Fail Bird.

Here are some editorials from around the country:

Washington Post

If anyone hoped that Wednesday night’s debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney would shake the presidential candidates off their canned talking points, they would have ended the evening disappointed.

The first of three encounters between the two men did underscore major contrasts between the two candidates: on keeping or repealing Obamacare, on financial regulation, on dealing with the deficit, on the fundamental role of government. Romney lauded “free people and free enterprises, doing things together,” and derided Obama’s approach as “trickle-down government.” Obama said Romney’s refusal to accept any tax increase — even the 10-for-one spending cut for tax increase he famously rejected in a Republican primary debate — represented “an unbalanced approach that means you are going to be gutting our investments” in education, infrastructure and research.

But both candidates studiously maintained the evasions and omissions at the heart of their policies. The debate was wonky without being especially honest. Which particular deductions would Romney curtail to avoid, as he insisted he would, having the lower tax rates he proposes add trillions to the debt? He didn’t say, beyond maintaining, repeatedly, that he would not “under any circumstances raise the taxes on middle-income Americans.” How would Obama “strengthen” Social Security “over the long term,” as he said must be done? He didn’t explain, other than to say only a “tweak” is needed. Nor, on the more important issue of Medicare, did the president detail how, beyond promising to slow the growth of health care costs, he would control the rapidly growing federal program.

The candidates’ comments on how they would deal with the debt were typically unenlightening. Asked about the recommendations from the Simpson-Bowles debt reduction commission, Romney said, “The president should have grabbed that.” But would he have done so? “I have my own plan,” Mr. Romney said. “It’s not Simpson-Bowles.” Indeed, the plan Romney says should have been “grabbed” contained revenue increases that Romney forswears; Simpson-Bowles insisted that the debt cannot be erased with spending cuts or tax increases alone. Obama’s answer was similarly dodgy:
“That’s what we’ve done,” he said in response to Mr. Romney’s “grabbed that” comment. “We’ve made some adjustments to it and we’re putting it before Congress right now.” That is hardly an accurate rendition of the Obama administration’s tepid, belated and inadequate response to the recommendations of his debt commission. His eventual proposal fell fall short of the reductions the commission said are essential.

One of the surprises of the evening was the number that remained unmentioned: 47 percent. Romney’s dismissive comments about Americans who pay no income taxes did not come up, either in questions from moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS or in jabs from the president. Indeed, for all the foreshadowing of zingers, such jabbing was, mercifully, largely absent. Obama, slightly ahead in the polls, was more policy professor than point-scorer. Romney, who needed more from the debate, talked at a somewhat higher elevation but also steered clear of personal attacks.

Romney effectively indicted the president for the weak state of the economy four years after his election. “We know the path we’re taking is not working,” he said. “It’s time for a new path.” Obama said Mr. Romney was peddling the same tax-cut “sales pitch that was made in 2001 and 2003,” adding, “Math, common sense and our history shows us that is not a recipe for job growth.” But the two candidates were strikingly complicit in failing to confront the magnitude of the fiscal challenge the winner will face immediately. The overriding feature of the debate was a tacit conspiracy of avoidance.

Chicago Tribune

This was a debate for the green-eyeshade crowd. If you tuned in Wednesday night to see President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney offer inspiring visions for the future, you heard more numbers than you did paeans to America.

The bottom line on engagement with an American public not five weeks from Election Day: Romney was alert, energized and confident. Obama slumped his shoulders, smiled mostly to himself, and for some reason kept staring down. He was that guy at the meeting who’s surreptitiously checking his email.

The exciting 2008 candidate of hope and change? Gone. Even the larger-than-life American eagle hanging behind the two candidates seemed perplexed.

This was, though, a serious exchange blessedly shy of rehearsed jabs — that gentlemanly, biceps-gripping handshake followed by the one-against-one collision this presidential race hadn’t seen.

Romney moved fast to keep viewers from straying to ESPN. By 8:12 p.m. Chicago time, he already had evoked Vice President Joe Biden’s gaffe of the week: Romney suggested that under Obama’s policies, the middle class has been "buried." Not until 8:24 did Obama retort with his own one-liner — that the American economy was sound when his fellow Democrat Bill Clinton was president.

By then, though, the talk about federal tax rates was deeply in the weeds. Before the debate’s economic segment had ended, we wondered if we had tuned into a reality program, "The Wonk and the Prof." The former, Romney, was agile and ready to rumble; the prof, by contrast, seemed wordy and defensive.

That projection from Obama makes some sense: For the first time in 16 years, a Democratic president had to defend a first term in the White House in a national debate. Romney was free to play offense, at one point reminding Obama that when the president agreed to extend the Bush tax cuts at the end of 2010, Obama said it would be unwise to raise taxes when the economy was struggling.

Obama nodded with evident pleasure when Romney said he wouldn’t raise taxes going forward. The president clearly disagreed — and looked less enthused when Romney asserted that he instead wants to raise federal revenues by putting more Americans to work.

Throughout their economic discussion, the two men probed repeatedly at each other’s perceived vulnerabilities: that Romney, a man of immense personal wealth, favors the rich. And that Obama, having pledged four years ago to halve the federal deficit, failed.

Romney spent the night clearly trying to execute a difficult game of Twister — trying to emphasize his personal likability while simultaneously dismantling the president’s performance in the economic realm. He likely made some progress on both fronts.

We had expected Obama to spend a good share of Wednesday night working to re-energize the voter coalition that elected him in 2008. And with urgent reason: A Politico poll released Monday had Democratic intensity slipping slightly to 75 percent from 81 percent in the afterglow of the party’s national convention. Meanwhile, the share of Republicans describing themselves as "extremely likely to vote" stayed at about 80 percent.

But as the night wore on, it was Romney brimming with ideas and offering that he would rather work out specific solutions with Congress next year, not issue ultimatums to the legislative branch today. Obama talked more about the health care plan he signed into law than he did about initiatives he would advance in a second term.

Both of these men boast Ivy League degrees. And each has shown himself capable of tremendous personal achievement.
But on Wednesday night, one man behaved as if he wanted to use what he has learned in life to lift America from its torpor. The other man behaved as if he was still strolling across Harvard Yard.

Kansas City Star

After hours of practice, columns of ink on what’s at stake, and reams of advice to avoid looking angry, glancing at watches or even grimacing, round one in the presidential debates clearly went to GOP challenger Mitt Romney.

He was sharp, focused, animated and stylistically looked in charge. President Barack Obama mostly looked pensive, sober and disturbingly unanimated. May we suggest a can of Red Bull for the president before the next debate in two weeks? Surely, an anniversary night out without 40 million or so viewers would have been better for him.
Neither candidate broke much new ground but neither tripped, either, producing no memorable gaffes. All in all, it was a civil exchange, if a bit too meandering.

PBS veteran moderator Jim Lehrer kept himself impartial, but failed to keep the two candidates within the planned time frames. As a result, not all topics got much time.

Romney clearly exceeded largely low expectations, and Obama wasn’t able to dodge the critics who accuse him of being "too professorial."

The first of the three scheduled presidential debates focused on domestic issues, covering a wide swath of ground: education, taxes, health care, jobs and partisanship.

Obama stuck with his "top down economic policies" slam at Romney, while Romney rebutted with a "trickle down government" rap on Obama.

In our scoring:


Surprisingly, Obama let the night pass without taking a swipe at Romney’s slam at the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay taxes. And he didn’t bring up Bain Capital’s history of shipping jobs overseas and eliminating jobs.
He didn’t successfully zero in on Romney’s continued lack of specifics on how he will make the elimination of unnamed deductions and loopholes recoup enough revenue to cover the tax cuts he proposes. This is a serious question that needs answers. Earlier in the week Romney offered a possible answer on a Colorado radio show: He might cap the total amount of deductions a taxpayer may submit. It’s a reasonable answer, but not one offered in the debate.

Both candidates offered a litany of "stories" of everyday people they meet on the campaign trail to illustrate their points. At this point, it strikes us that this is a much over-used prop for debaters. Is there no new tactic for making a point?
Romney’s misses were his lack of specifics, beyond grand promises of being a job creator. At times, he pushed his way into aggressive territory, a move that can turn off voters.


Romney, not known for cracking a good joke, did manage to add a little humor when he suggested he needed a new accountant as part of his rebuke to the Obama charge that companies moving jobs overseas reap tax benefits.

Obama was strong on his grandmother’s story of earning her own way to Medicare and Social Security benefits. And he effectively picked up on the "it’s the math, arithmetic" line first offered by former President Bill Clinton in defending his tax plan to protect the middle class and ask the wealthy to pay more.

The next presidential debate in two weeks is a town hall forum with uncommitted citizens asking questions. Round two may play better to Obama’s strengths.

KR blames the format and the moderator.

The "Empty Chair" showed up as expected. I guess Eastwood was right. During the week Obama complained that, 'they are making me do my homework'. The President was exposed with no teleprompter or media protection.

For some reason Jim Lehrer thinks we have to loan money from China to pay his salary.


Lehrer is in the Top 5 for moderators.
The Liberal whine is to blame someone else.

Not much there when

The invisible man in the empty suit shows up without his teleprompter and the words written by those pulling his puppet strings. Falling back on his traditional talking points, it was noticeable that he didn't mention "Hope and Change". At least he didn't feign a South Side Chicago Ebonic accent as he did at Hampton.

Hey, where are the Tap Dancers and the rows of barking seals?

I thought they would be out in full defense, on The Night Liberalism died.

Big Bird

And yet NOTHING has been done to prevent the Too Big To Fail banks, investment houses, and auto makers.

Four years later we do not have a national energy plan. Our foreign oil is still a top 3 national security threat. Obama had the PERFECT opportunity to address it- nothing done.

When will a liberal media personality admit Obama has not done well?

I'm no fan of Romney, but the Obama team is losing.


Obama and the Liberal message is based on fear and appeals to ignorance.

A tax deduction for moving companies overseas.

Obama plays on the level of radio talk-shows.

Obama looked worse debating Romney, ....

Than he looked debating Clint Eastwood!

How can you debate anyone when you have ran up

the worse debt and worse USA record in American History....

What we need to know is when is he (Nobel Peace Winner)to bomb Syria and Iran, followed by China and Russia....

Is the dollar done?

Debate format was great IMO

I have to disagree with Kevin's dislike of the debate format. This seemed closer to a real debate than what the media has been dishing out in the past. Lehrer did have a problem a few times keeping one or the other candidate to the set time limit (that happens in every debate) but I really liked the way he performed the role of a facilitator instead of trying to make the debate about his journalistic prowess. We have seen that happen in the past also, by the moderator or panel members, and it is a boring abuse of the debate process.

According to one source that was keeping track of the time, President Obama was allowed to talk 4 minutes longer than Romney. Big deal!

And, btw, I don't think Obama deserves the beating the media and pundits have been piling on him. It seems like both sides were looking forward to a prize fight with some bloody punches, the same people who pontificate about the incivility in politics. I'm glad both candidates conducted themselves as statesmen, not street fighters.