Mitt Romney and Barack Obama raised the tone of U.S. politics in their opening presidential debate on Tuesday night. They debated policy, in detail. There were no personal attacks, direct or implied. There was nothing snide or disrespectful. Voters in the United States had a chance to hear two very different visions of the country from two especially strong candidates.
The near-flawless performance of Mr. Romney means that the presidential race will be hotly contested from now till its last moments, as the most important elected job in the world should be.
Even though Mr. Romney trounced Mr. Obama in both style and substance, it would be a stretch to say he demolished the president’s arguments. On Obamacare, the president’s health-care program, Mr. Romney wasn’t able to show that it was truly different from the program he spearheaded as Massachusetts governor. When he said the federal government should butt out and let the states innovate, he didn’t mention the financial constraints that many states are under. On his tax plan, Mr. Romney did not give any concrete examples of tax loopholes he would close to save the $500-billion a year ($5 trillion over 10 years) that his proposed tax cuts would cost the treasury, according to an independent analysis. It sounded impressive that he promised not to permit tax cuts if they caused a deficit – but the U.S. is so deeply in deficit, wouldn’t any tax cut deepen it? Mr. Obama still has a more believable platform, but will need to explain it with less wonkishness and more heart, and push Mr. Romney off the middle ground he planted himself on.
Mr. Romney’s success lay in an apparent transformation that Mr. Obama was helpless to stop. He, rather than Mr. Obama, seemed to understand and relate to the anxieties of ordinary people. His defences against portrayals of himself as beholden to the rich or to Wall Street were virtually impregnable (Mr. Obama was unaccountably slow on the attack). The former Massachusetts governor came across as engaging, humorous and respectful toward others.
What Brian Mulroney said of Justin Trudeau this week is true of both the president and the challenger: underestimate either one at your peril. Mr. Romney is a candidate transformed. As for Mr. Obama, despite his surprisingly tepid or hesitant performance, he has formidable skills, judgment and experience. What he needs is a bit more fire in the belly.