Last night, Governor Mitt Romney introduced himself to the American people as he would want us to know him. He exhibited a kind of passion we have not yet seen from him. The personal offense he seemed to take at the president’s policies was palpable; he seemed mostly to speak directly to President Obama rather than his audience. Regardless of the direction of his gaze, Mitt Romney showed up ready to play — and to, as he said himself, “fact check” — at last night’s debate.
And Romney did something conservatives always struggle to do: he became a protagonist. Whether he had first or second word on a variety of issues, Romney controlled the discussion.
President Obama’s performance was unusual for him. While it still contained the same irritability and professorial affect we’re used to — as well as his signature “Look’s” at the beginning of sentences — it was undeniably defensive. Perhaps his defensiveness came from his slowly dawning realization that while Americans have become ever more desperate during his administration, his talking points still haven’t changed.
Obama still expounds the hollow promises of fair shares, investment in the future, economic patriotism and balanced approaches. Meanwhile, his veneer has worn away, and what’s left seems empty. Though Obama’s administration saw the continued fall of middle class incomes and more small businesses shut down for good, the ghost of George Bush’s administration still was invoked to accept the blame. Obama’s tired-2008 style came up against Romney’s barrage of policy specifics, his ability to connect to real American stories and good-old-fashioned logic. And 2008 Obama did not fare well.
One of Governor Romney’s biggest breakthroughs of the debate was his willingness to finally enter into a territory conservatives have long avoided. He drew the obvious parallels between the trickle-down economics straw-man Obama claims to fight against, and the so-called “trickle-down government” approach that the president zealously supports. As Romney implies in this phrase, a huge edifice of one-size-fits-all federal power cannot understand the extraordinary diversity of problems that plague our economy, healthcare system or everyday lives, let alone regulate them prudently. The task of regulation taken on by the administration was not only badly conceived, but also impossible.
Obama’s first term, as Romney pointed out, is rife with examples of this failed approach. Take, for example, Obama’s claim that mandating $700 billion less in Medicare payments from the top down will somehow reduce medical costs. It will actually only mean, as Romney articulated, that while the cuts may help the government meet the Affordable Care Act’s huge bottom line, the breadth of care Medicare can provide will, by necessity, fall. Just as deftly, Romney turned around Obama’s claim that government healthcare policy should emulate private sector, results-oriented models like that of the Cleveland Clinic. If healthcare can be done so well with a profit motive in the private sector, what’s the point of publicly mandating those innovations? Good ideas, especially in an insurance industry where profit is hard to come by, tend to spread without the hand of government intervention.
Another major Romney victory was his ability to provide a clear articulation of why growth-oriented, deficit-cutting policy works. President Obama’s message has long touted a so-called balanced approach to deficit reduction. Governor Romney confronted Obama with the unassailable fact that wealth is organic. Left to their own devices, individuals tend to invest wealth to create more. While widening the tax base and getting more capital in the economy allows for more tax revenue, each added tax (be it on the wealthy, middle class, poor or businesses) turns a living dollar to a dead one. President Obama’s classist rhetoric of “paying your fair share” ran into a concrete wall of economic reality. And for once, a conservative articulated this concept in a decidedly non-wonky, non-elitist tone. If Romney manages these themes well for the rest of the campaign, it will pay off for him.
Were there some bright spots for Obama? Sure. For one, some of his worst political stances seem to be changing. For example, he headlined his plan to reduce the corporate tax rate in order to preempt Romney from bringing it up!
On the whole, though, Obama came across as far more of a non-entity than his supporters might have hoped. Romney, despite staring incredulously at Obama the whole time, came across as anchored in the realities of the administration and American life. And, as I’m sure made many liberal Yalies squirm, Romney made powerful inroads into the intellectual foundation of President Obama’s thought, revealing the President’s deeply inverted sense of economic reality. Perhaps over the coming weeks, Romney will lead more Americans to understand that economic recovery starts locally, not in Washington. For tonight, he can savor his hard-earned success.
John Masko is a junior in Saybrook College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.