Last night, Obama and Romney joined in Denver for the first of their presidential debates. The debate was hosted and moderated by PBS, and lasted for about an hour and a half. Initial thoughts, and polling following the debate, have shown that most people thought Romney did very well.
In my view, that's pretty accurate. Romney appeared more comfortable, he was very aggressive with the President's record, and he was well-spoken. The President, by contrast, seemed out of practice, stiff, and didn't really engage Romney on his own policies, or call out the candidate on the gaffes he's made recently.
But that initial view of the debate really only covers mannerisms. What about content?
Neither candidate went very specific, though they seemed to try. Both presented multi-point plans on various issues, but their points were vague and more like statements of position rather than actual plans. This was particularly prevalent with Romney, who struggled to not only remain vague but also maintain consistency with his earlier statements. Romney, it must be remembered, is used to addressing supporters and not all Americans at once. He had to be more moderate and more appealing, and therefore had to walk back some of his policy positions to appear more likable. The President did not have that issue.
The topics were the economy, jobs, regulation, health care, and the roll of government. What struck me is that both candidates tried to make sweeping statements that covered a lot of ground, while trying to attack their opponent for doing the same thing.
The one thing that really swayed my opinion about the debate, though, was Romney's statements. First of all, he had many that were untrue, such as the $716 Billion from medicare, the raising of taxes, and the numbers of his own tax and economic plan. These were issues that he harped on over and over, engaged with the President over, and that he clearly was not ready to discuss. Many of those points were wrong, and he continued to give them. In one case, involving taxes and his economic plan, Romney stated that he would reduce rates while keeping this from raising the deficit and without raising taxes on the middle class. Yet Romney never explained this. Instead, he made several other statments throughout the night about his plan being better for middle income Americans without explaining how, even when Obama pointed out that running the numbers meant huge cuts to programs for middle income Americans or a higher tax rate on them. This remark went unchallenged.
Some analysts have pointed out that Obama failed to target Romney aggressively over Romney's recent statements, particularly that 47% of the country were dependent on government. While they saw this as being cowardly or somehow less than reasonable by the President, I happen to think that it was a mark of respect for the other candidate. Obama stuck to policy, to the issues at hand, and did not engage in character assassination or personal attacks. Romney, to his credit, seemed to do the same thing. While I'm sure many people felt Obama should have attacked Romney for his previous statements, I'm happy with Obama's decision to stick to the topic at hand, and debate those issues with Romney.
And speaking of topics, this night was really geared to Romney's strengths of the economy and jobs. He's a big name for taxation, regulation, and business. It will be interesting to see how he fares on issues such as foreign policy and social issues in the coming debates.
In the end, my feeling is that there were no "winners" during this debate, and that we will have to wait for the next one, on October 19th, to see who does well. In the mean time, I don't think much will change. There may be some shifts in the polls as more people make a final decision about a candidate. But again, we've got more debates coming, and they will likely tell us more about who would be a better commander-in-chief.