On the 100th anniversary of the publication of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," a discussion about why the poem and poet are well-loved but misunderstood.
The first presidential debate was held last night in Denver. Diane and her guests discuss what they said, who came out ahead, and where the candidates go from here.
- E.J. Dionne Jr. senior fellow, The Brookings Institution, columnist, Washington Post and author of "Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent."
- Susan Page Washington bureau chief for USA Today.
- Ramesh Ponnuru senior editor for the "National Review."
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Last night in Denver, Colo., the presidential candidates faced off in their first debate of the election. The 90-minute back and forth featured some heated and detailed exchanges over domestic policy, jobs, the economy and Medicare. For analysis of last night's event: E.J. Dionne joins me in the studio -- he's a columnist for The Washington Post -- Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor at the National Review and, joining us by phone from Denver, Colo., Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today.
MS. DIANE REHMI do invite you to chime in. Give us your thoughts, your reactions to the debate last night. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning, everybody. It's good to have you with us.
MR. E.J. DIONNE JR.Good to be with you, Diane.
MR. RAMESH PONNURUGood morning.
MS. SUSAN PAGEGood morning.
REHMSusan Page, you were watching the debate in person. What was your reaction? Was the debate the substantive debate that voters wanted to hear?
PAGENow, just to be clear, I was watching at the media filing center, not in the debate hall itself...
PAGE…'cause I was writing and filing during the debate, but certainly in the mix and about an arm's length away from that spin room full of Republicans and Democrats telling us their guy had won. I thought it was a -- I love these debates. I love the fact that the president and his challenger get together for 90 minutes and have this discussion. I thought it was a pretty substantive discussion. I think the format helped it be a more substantive discussion than we sometimes had. And I thought it was a surprising debate, surprising that President Obama was so flat and that Mitt Romney was so sharp.
REHMInteresting comments, flat and sharp, and, Ramesh Ponnuru, Mitt Romney needed to change the trajectory of the race last night. To what extent was he able to do that?
PONNURUI think he gave Republicans hope for a change, and they needed it. Republicans had been seeing bad news after bad news. You know how these campaigns get in these sort of spirals where bad news sort of feeds on itself. They needed something to somewhat, you know, change this dynamic, and I think they got it last night.
PONNURUI think it's going to at least change the media conversation. You had a situation where, I think, a lot of liberals and Democrats were admitting that their guy had lost that debate where there just wasn't a lot of spin that the Democrats could do to paint that over.
REHMAdmission of the loss, E.J.?
JR.I'd sort of confirm what Ramesh said in a different way, which is what I noticed is a lot of liberals and Democrats were mad at the president. They were mad at the president for leaving so many Romney misstatements and shifts in position on the table.
JR.Well, for example, I was struck that he repeatedly tried to deny that his tax program cut taxes by $5 trillion. It does. That's a fact. And the president sort of tried to call him on that because it looked -- you know, he said that now, his tax program is never mind, but he didn't really go at him on that. He didn't go at him on Medicaid cuts where what he proposes really would cut Medicaid a great deal.
JR.He didn't go at him on health care and pre-existing conditions. Jonathan Cohn has a very good piece in The New Republic on all the misleading moments that Romney offered Obama an opportunity to say, no, that's not true. And Obama did not bring up the more, you know, the issues that he had been using on the stump. The words 47 percent were never mentioned at the debate.
JR.Now, I think -- so I think there is no denying that there's a reason sometimes why the convention wisdom is at close to 95 percent. And in this case, I think it's quite clear that Obama had Romney on the ropes. Romney got off the ropes. Obama could have put him away last night. He didn't. I think that's true. I think the follow-up will be whether Romney has done the Etch-a-Sketch moment and has completely changed himself yet again for the general election.
JR.He was moderate in Massachusetts. He was right wing in the primaries. Now, he wants to move back to the center. And so I think that'll be part of the discussion in the wake of the debate, but it was a lost opportunity for Obama.
REHMA lot there. Ramesh, let's talk about that 47 percent. Why do you think that the president never brought that up?
PONNURUWell, that's an interesting question, and it also leads to the broader question of why he seemed to be off his game last night. It may be that he thought that the 47 percent point had been made, that everybody who needs to hear about Romney's inelegant formulation, as he put it, gaffe or disaster, depending on your perspective, had already heard about it. I wondered, though, whether one of the things that went on last night is there had been so many weeks of people saying that President Obama has this campaign in the bag that maybe there was a little bit of complacency on the part of the president.
JR.I -- could I just say quickly, either complacency, which I think is quite possible, or, you know, prevent defense, basically a worry that if he was too aggressive, he would wreck the trajectory that the campaign was on. And when you're not aggressive enough, you can also wreck the trajectory the campaign was on.
PAGEYou know, I think there's another thing at play here, and that is something that has happened to four of the last five presidents who run for reelection. And that is they get accustomed to being president for four years. Every time they walk into a hall, the band plays "Hail to the Chief." When they're in the Oval Office, it is very rare for someone to challenge them, extremely rare to be challenged face to face on an even playing field on a debate stage.
PAGEAnd I think they get used to being treated with a certain deference. That didn't happen last night. Mitt Romney was not rude, but he was very direct and quite critical about President Obama's stewardship of the economy in particular. But we saw this happen before. It happened to George W. Bush in his first debate in 2004, in his father's first debate in 1992, in Reagan's first debate as president in 1984 and in Carter's first debate -- actually, their only debate in 1980.
PAGEYou know, I think that, in those cases, the presidents who had a second debate coming up had to knuckle down, take it more seriously and figure out how they were going to handle a challenger who was not going to be deferential with them.
JR.Amen to that, by the way.
REHMWhat did you think, Susan, of the format of the debate? Did it work?
PAGEYou know, I know there's a lot of discussion this morning, and as there was last night, about the format and the moderator. I have to say I thought it worked pretty well. It's really hard to keep these debates from just being the two candidates saying what they say on the stump every day, what they say in their ads, you know, kind of 90-second sound bites, kind of simultaneous press conferences. And the format was specifically designed -- it was changed this year -- to try to have more of a free-flowing discussion.
PAGESo you had the moderator Jim Lehrer, who, of course, is a great friend of "The Diane Rehm Show," kind of toss the ball up at the beginning of each 15-minute segment, and the two candidates then debated back and forth. As a result, Obama got more time than Mitt Romney. Obama spoke longer, for those who were putting a stopwatch on it. And yet it seemed to me we had a more substantive debate that, in its way, revealed how big the differences are in the world view of these two contenders.
REHMRamesh, to what extent do you think both Gov. Romney and President Obama got into the weeds?
PONNURUWell, I think that it was a pretty detailed discussion at some points. You know, Gov. Romney was talking about parts of Dodd-Frank that he was going to keep and parts that he wasn't. We had a lively discussion of premium support for Medicare. And I have to wonder how many people were actually able to follow all of that back and forth.
PONNURUBut I thought that the thing that was interesting was that Romney, who had -- didn't tuck any policies during his convention speech, showed a kind of command of the issues, had the facts and figures at the ready. Obama, I thought, made a good point that he wasn't always very detailed in explaining what he was going to do, but he came across as somebody who knew what he was talking about.
JR.He also wasn't very accurate but, Obama didn't call him on it. I do think there was...
PONNURUWell, there was inaccuracy on both sides, I'd say.
JR.I just -- listen -- yeah, but I don't think it was equally balanced in accuracy. I really think -- or, as I said before...
REHMGive me an...
JR....on taxes on Medicare, on Medicaid, for example, there were some howlers there. And I just don't think they were called on it. In some ways, I wonder if they got into the weeds in an unenlightening way. I think that could be the worst of all worlds. On the one hand, give Romney credit. He used the format to his benefit. And Obama knew what the worlds were going in, and I don't think he -- even -- he may have gotten -- as Susan said, I'm sure that's accurate that Obama got more time, but he didn't use the time as well.
JR.I think Romney, when he needed to jump in and ride over the moderator, he did so. And Obama could have done that and chose not to. But what I worry about is that there were a lot of facts and figures and acronyms and those -- and that sort of thing thrown around. I'm not sure how enlightening it was to listeners to that debate if you weren't, you know, if you weren't deeply into the details of policies. So I wonder if Romney had another victory, which is he helped cut the audience for the second debate which is going to be very important for Barack Obama.
PAGEBut, you know, E.J., you and I have both covered debates where all that comes out of a debate is some quip, often a quip that was drafted and rehearsed before the debate began, and that becomes the story of the debate. That didn't happen last night. There was not one gaffe that we're all talking about this morning. We're really talking about what would they do on Medicare? Do the numbers add up for Romney's tax plan? I think that's good. Let me just make one other point. Obama got more time. Romney said more words.
PAGENBC ran a word count program on the transcript of the debate and found that, even though he got less time, he's talked faster, crisper, and I think that came across. It gave Romney -- there was a sense of confidence about Romney, and I think that's one reason he became hard to challenge on some of these factual points that E.J. is raising.
JR.That's probably why it seemed like Romney got more time, even though he did. That's a great fact, Susan.
REHME.J. Dionne, he is senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, columnist for The Washington Post, Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review. And joining us by phone from Denver, Colo., the site of last night's debate, Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today. Short break. Your calls when we come back.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about last night's debate which took place in Denver, Colo., the first of the 2012 presidential debates between President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney.
REHMAwful lot of people are believing saying that, in fact, Gov. Romney seemed quite at ease, quite strong, quite aggressive, whereas President Obama seemed to be a little more -- I don't know whether he seemed annoyed, whether he seemed, as Susan suggested, having been president for four years, rather annoyed to have his own thoughts, his ideas challenged. I wondered about that $716 billion, E.J. Dionne, that Mitt Romney kept saying the president took out of Medicare.
JR.Well, I think this was a classic example of where the president has answered this effectively and turned it around on Romney on the stump and in his advertising, the point being that this $716 billion does not come out of core Medicare. It comes out of providers. It comes out of insurance companies, the subsidy of Medicare Advantage. And that also, which he didn't mention, the health care bill, the Affordable Care Act provides a lot of new benefits to seniors, including closing that doughnut hole. You heard none of that.
JR.You didn't hear that the Ryan budget included -- where the first early version of the Ryan budget included the $717 billion in cuts as well. So the president left a lot on the table on that issue, which he had answered in the campaign.
PONNURUWell, actually, I think you're being a little unfair to Obama because he did mention the prescription drug question, the doughnut hole, when he said that if Romney had his way, people would be paying more on prescription drugs.
PONNURUBut Romney came back and said that the cuts to Medicare in Obama's program were 15 times as large as the benefits. And Obama had no comeback to that because it's true. In fact, you can say this money comes out of providers. But I think most people understand, you can't just cut money out of providers without it affecting patients.
JR.Just -- could I say quickly?
JR.Ramesh has a point there that when you looked at the post-debate spin, the Obama people argue, following what Ramesh said, that the most dangerous thing for Romney out of that debate was the Medicare discussion and that they will continue to drive that. And if they hope to take anything out of this debate, it's that all that focus on Medicare will put it back in play and they can do an advertising in Obama speeches what Obama himself failed to do in the debate.
REHMSusan, the evening started off with a lengthy discussion of taxes and whose plan would be better for the middle class. Talk about that.
PAGEWell, and you had -- this is an issue -- just a blizzard of numbers there in that first 15 minutes as someone who had to write an analysis. Fifteen minutes later, I was really struggling to keep up. I think that the, you know, President Obama made the case, which has been made by independent think tanks, that Romney's tax plan would cost about $5 trillion. He said that isn't true. But this puts the onus on him.
PAGEI think this is an opening for Obama campaign in the days moving forward to force Romney or to push Romney to explain how he can make his numbers (unintelligible).
REHMWell, he kept saying that Gov. Romney's plan simply does not add up.
PAGEWell, and he is not -- Gov. Romney has not provided the specifics, so we can't tell whether his plan adds up or not. He says that he's going to offset reductions in tax rates by reducing -- by eliminating deductions and loopholes, but he doesn't say what they are. President Obama made the point that, even if you eliminated all the deductions for the most wealthy Americans, it doesn't make his plan add up.
PAGESo I do this is a line of attack or of questioning that not only the Obama administration -- the Obama campaign but also reporters should be pursuing this morning. If Gov. Romney's going to say, no, your number is inaccurate, then I think he has an obligation to present American voters with the numbers to show them that he's making a legitimate case for himself.
REHMFair point. Ramesh?
PONNURUWell, I do think that there is a fair point there because Romney has been specific about the tax rates that he's going to cut and how much, and he hasn't been specific about deductions and breaks that he's going to get rid of and how that's going to work. He's thrown out some ideas there. I don't think it is impossible to make these numbers add up, and, you know, some people have run simulations on how to do that.
PONNURUBut I think that, you know, he could've gone with just saying, look, we're going to work this out based on the new Congress and the economic conditions, and here are my priorities. Or he could've gone with a specific plan. But he sort of did little bit of each, and I think that created a vulnerability.
JR.You know, there's the old expression, if you have lemons, make lemonade. And so the first take on this debate is Romney was strong and ferocious, and Obama was disengaged. I think that there was a lot of stuff left on the table for the next week between now and the vice presidential debate. I personally think, as Susan suggested, that the tax issue is a real problem for Romney because you cannot fill in $5 trillion in rate cuts without cutting deeply into benefits that a lot of middle-class people like.
JR.I'd be very curious to see how Romney does it. He's tossed out this idea of a cap of $17,000 on deductions that affect different people in different states. Differently, it would raise a lot of other questions. So I think the post-debate spin not on the performance, I think the Obama people are going to walk away from the performance issue as rapidly as they can and try to go to the substance on issues like Medicare, Medicaid and taxes.
REHMAnd the debate over taxes, of course, dealt also with the debate over the national debt. How do the candidates frame that one, E.J.?
JR.Well, I think another -- there were two other surprises, I think, in Obama's performance. One is he didn't mention the words George W. Bush. He made a reference in the debate early on to the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. I'm not sure how many Americans -- I have a lot of confidence to the American people. I'm not fully sure how many of them associated the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts with George W. Bush.
JR.And he only mentioned Paul Ryan a few times and that, again, the Paul Ryan budget is such a large target for the Obama campaign. Again, they've used it on the stump a great deal, and the Ryan budget adds to the deficit before -- long before it starts subtracting from the deficit. It doesn't come into balance for 20 years or more. And, again, I think that's a post-debate issue that'll come up. I just don't know why the names Bush and Ryan didn't come up a little bit more.
PAGEAnd, you know, E.J., there was something else that surprised me even more than those surprises, and that was 47 percent. I mean, there has been no…
PAGEThere has been no number or word that has been more damaging to Mitt Romney than those comments that we're also familiar now from the video in that -- at that Florida fundraiser. And yet he didn't raise it. Now, I'm sure Mitt Romney had devised the response he would give if and when it was raised. But for President Obama not to press that issue, I thought, was quite surprising.
JR.I was so surprised that I tried to develop a theory about why he didn't do that. And the only theory I can think of that makes any sense to me anyway is that President Obama knew that Romney had a reply in mind. And that he didn't want to give Romney a chance to muddy an issue that has so clearly worked in the president's favor, and he'd rather have the statement just sit out there than give Romney a chance to answer. That's the only rationale for not bringing it up that I can think of.
REHMWhat do you think, Ramesh?
PONNURUWell, you know, actually, I think that the ad that the Obama campaign is running on the 47 percent is far more effective and really devastating than anything Obama could've said on that stage because Romney -- as E.J. was saying, Romney could have a comeback to that. The ad, on the other hand, with the images of people who are implicitly part of this 47 percent with the sounds of the clinking of glasses on china, that, I think, is really much more effective than anything Obama could've said, especially the Obama of last night.
PAGEI'm sorry, you guys, you're, of course, much smarter than I am. So I'm a little bit...
PAGETo me, if you've got a weapon that's the most effective weapon you have and you're in the first debate, which is the most important event in the final four weeks of the campaign, you just might want to mention it.
JR.No. I agree with that, that's why I came up with my theory which is I was mystified that it didn't come up. And the only rationale I could think of was the one that Ramesh and I, in our different ways, offered.
REHMDid Mr. Romney have a plan to replace what he called Obamacare? And, by the way, the president said, I like that term. Ramesh.
PONNURUYes. The long, terminological debate over the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare can now finally be brought to a bipartisan conclusion. Well, you know, Romney has talked about letting people buy insurance across state lines, changing the tax treatment of health insurance -- although he hasn't, again, been specific about how he's going to do that -- and setting up high-risk pools. Again, details TBD on that issue.
PONNURUBut -- and I think that was -- the one good line, I thought, that President Obama got in during the debate was when he said Romney's not keeping these details hidden because they're so great. Even that line I thought he didn't deliver especially well, but I thought that that was one good shot. That was a good theme. I do think it's a little odd for the candidate of Hope and Change from 2008 to be basing a lot of his campaign on not enough details from the other guy.
REHMRamesh, what do you think happened as far as the president was concerned? Do you think it was, as Susan suggests, he's been in office for four years? Was it perhaps a matter of debate preparation? Was it he was tired? He didn't want to be on the stage? What do you think it was?
PONNURUWell, maybe a little bit of those things. I guess two additional thoughts. One is just maybe being out of practice. When Democrats said beforehand the president's a little rusty, whereas Romney's gone through all of these debates pretty recently, they were trying to lower expectations. But maybe what they were saying was also true. And then the other thing -- and this is sort of a heretical view -- I actually just don't think that the -- I think the president's political skills in this sort of setting are just highly overrated and always have been.
PONNURUHe has never been in a tight general election race before. He didn't have to face that in Illinois when he was up against Alan Keyes. I mean, I'm talking statewide races or presidential race. And, of course, he had the best circumstances for a Democratic challenger in '08 of any Democratic challenger since 1932.
PAGEWell, Ramesh, in fairness, he hasn't had a tough general election race. He had a really tough Democratic primary race four years ago. He was the underdog to Hillary Clinton. He took that Democratic nomination away from her, including (unintelligible). I agree he's not a master debater.
PAGEIt's not his very best format. He's maybe a little professorial for this to be good for him, but he's a pretty good debater. And I'll tell you what else: He's a smart man, and he's a competitive guy. He wants to win this election, and that's why...
PONNURUCan I just come back on one point? I can see all of that. All I'll say is he is terrific at fighting within a liberal universe. He has never had to fight and claw his way to get middle-of-the-road or conservative voters. This is the first campaign in which he's going to have to do that.
REHMGo ahead. Very...
JR.Can I agree or disagree with both of you? I agree entirely that Obama is not a great debater and that if you go back to those 2008 primaries, he lost a lot of those debates. He had his famous "You're likeable enough, Hillary" moment. There were debates that Joe Biden beat him in quite handily. I remember one in particular up at Saint Anselm's in New Hampshire. So I don't think it's his best format, and I don't think he likes it very much.
JR.On the other hand, against John McCain, granted that Ramesh is right -- he had a lead that he was holding -- I thought he spoke every word in those debates to swing voters. I thought it was actually -- the McCain debates were a very disciplined performance of a sort that we didn't see in the same way last night.
REHME. J. Dionne, he's senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, columnist for The Washington Post. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Time to open the phones, 800-433-8850, first to St. Louis, Mo. Good morning, Laurel.
REHMGo right ahead, please.
LAURELWell, I have a couple of points or questions to make. The first is that it seems like everyone is focusing a lot on things like the style and the charisma of the candidates. And I wish that we could focus less on that and focus on the fact that what really stood out to me during the debate was the way that the candidates disagreed on things that could be checked. So is there not some way that we could work into the debate system some way of holding people, holding the candidates accountable?
REHMNow, what's happened in the past, for example, is that CNN has posted the questions as they were being asked. You could tell when a candidate was not answering the question. But what Laurel is talking about is fact checking, and that's going to have to come now, E. J.
JR.Well, I think you're seeing a lot of it this morning. I'm staring at the Post, a big piece by our fact checker Glen Kessler. And, you know, part of this discussion I opened by arguing that there were a lot of things Romney said that weren't true, that are going to be potentially a problem for him down the road. But I think she also gets to really interesting point about the conundrum of moderating a presidential debate.
JR.And I think the problem with the format last night is it was not quite one thing or another. I dream of a debate in which the moderator's only role is timekeeping and that the debate -- the candidates go at each other, and they take it wherever they want to go so you don't have buckets of issues. You just let them take the debate. And Jim Lehrer is...
REHMBut who's going to stop them from talking over each other?
JR.Just time -- all you do is have strict timekeeping.
JR.And I think Jim Lehrer has expressed some interest over the years in that kind of debate. But this debate was a bit of a halfway house, and it wasn't one thing or the other. And so what Laurel, if I got her name right...
JR....yeah, Laurel is suggesting is that, at some point, is there an obligation on the part of the moderator to say, wait a minute? You know, as you see on some of the Sunday shows, that's not really true, is it? But then, of course, if the moderator does that, he's accused of interfering in the debate.
PAGEYou know, I think that's a really good point because that is the role of a moderator in some formats, right, to call to account, to say, you're not answering the question or to say, independent observer, independent analyst say what you're saying isn't true. But in a presidential debate, I'm not sure -- or, you know, in a two-person presidential debate, I'm sure that's what you want.
PAGEI think you kind of prefer a system where the candidates are responsible for challenging one another, and you count on journalists to try to do fact checking when it's over. And, you know, I take E.J.'s point about a more free-flowing debate where you'd really -- all the moderator is is a -- you know, saying that it's time to move on.
PAGEBut I got to tell you, I can't believe two candidates would ever agree to a format like that.
JR.I agree with that. I agree with that.
REHMRamesh, what do you think?
PONNURUWell, I think that the fact checking institutions have not covered themselves in glory this year. I think that a lot of those institutions have repeatedly either made interpretive calls that were quite arguable and dressed them up as facts or just gotten things wrong. And I hope that this time, while Gov. Romney's statements should be scrutinized, I hope there's some scrutiny on some of the Obama's whoppers, like this idea that Romney's Medicare plan would expose people to $6,400 in additional cost. Just totally untrue.
JR.It -- it's true of an earlier version of the Ryan plan. If I could just say, fact checkers...
REHMYou can't. We're out of time here. Hold it until after the break. Ramesh Ponnuru is senior editor for the National Review and a columnist for Bloomberg View. Short break and right back.
REHMAnd let's go right back to the phones to Sue who's here in Washington, D.C.. You're on the air.
SUEHi. I hope you can hear me. I'm walking to work. I agree with everything the panel had said. And I do agree that as an Obama supporter, that he should've been a little more aggressive. However, one point that no one has brought up, and that is, attitudinally, I think the president was just sort of incredulous because you can make all these promises and hopes and dreams and go into office. And I think he was saying in his mind, you know, try to get it done. And especially with the divisiveness today in Congress, you know, Gov. Romney can make all these promises but try to get it done. And I...
REHMSusan, what do you think?
PAGEI think that's a great point, Sue, and I think that's a point that first-term presidents almost always think about when they hear their challenger saying all the things they did wrong and all the things that the challenger would do better in office. You know, what did president -- I mean, it's like the -- it's -- you could take the attitude that President Obama took as a candidate four years ago where he was pretty aspirational in what his -- and raised expectations about what he would be able to do in his first term.
JR.I thought it was an interesting point also because one of the things about this debate that we don't know yet is how Romney's aggressiveness went over with swing voters, and I think particularly women voters who may have looked to President Obama and said, well, he's trying to answer these questions as somebody who's serious about it. Romney is just on the attack.
JR.The focus group in poll -- groups in polling that I saw were interesting because while, overwhelmingly, people said Romney won the debate, he didn't very -- he didn't substantially improve his favorable ratings, and they -- about one poll, I saw Romney went up two, Obama went up one, and Romney's already way ahead of him on that measure. If I could just pick up one thing Ramesh said, I can't leave fact checkers undefended. I agree they make some mistakes. I've disagreed with certain fact checking.
JR.But on balance, I think they are very important. And a lot of Republicans don't like them this year because the Republicans have really played pretty fast and loose with a lot of facts. And so they've gone after the fact checkers.
PONNURUI would say that the Democrats have had the fact checkers on their side more often than they've had the facts on their side.
JR.But I think it's because the facts are on their side. And a good conservative that you are, you're trying to have it the other way around.
REHMAll right. Here's an email from Michael in Plymouth, Mich., who calls himself a big Obama supporter. He says, "There are many examples of openings that Romney gave Obama he didn't take advantage of." "But now," he says, "I'm wondering if Obama actually did waste $90 billion on alternative energy research. Romney kept saying it, and Obama never responded. His lack of denial, or at least some kind of explanation, only served to validate Romney's claim. If a strong Obama supporter like me now has doubts, what do voters still on the fence think?" Susan.
PAGEWell, what a great point, Michael, and that's got to just put a chill up the spine of the strategists for President Obama. You know, we will have another round of this, right? We will have another debate in two weeks, another presidential debate. And the format is different. The format may be a little better for President Obama. It's a town hall format.
PAGESo that kind of rapid fire, all these facts, lots of numbers, being on the attack that we saw from Gov. Romney last night, it's a little harder to sustain that in an effective way in a town hall format when the questions are being asked by citizens and when you're responding to them.
REHMAll right. To Somerville, Mass. Good morning, Julie.
JULIEHi. Good morning. I'm calling because one thing that I've been frustrated that hasn't come up is Romney's record in Massachusetts. When he was governor here, my children were in elementary school, and every year, we had massive teacher layoff. It was really frightening, and it was really -- we were always afraid to hear the numbers. He cut aid to local cities and towns by 20 percent. My home -- my mortgage insurance -- or not my mortgage insurance, but my property insurance went up.
JULIEFees went up for everything, so there were a lot of activities that I used to do with my kids that I had to question whether or not I would still do because of the fees. Firefighters were laid off. Police were laid off. There was really a bad feeling when he was the governor here, and that's never come up. And I don't understand why his record of governor hasn't come up in the conversation.
PONNURUWell, his record as governor did, of course, come up last night when President Obama slyly praised Gov. Romney for Romneycare in Massachusetts. And I think that the campaign, the Democratic campaign has made a strategic decision to argue. The problem with Romney is less things he did as governor, although they've taken a few shots over the months on that, that he has betrayed a centrist record as governor to embrace the far right. And I think that taking that kind of -- you sort of have a hard time making both of those arguments simultaneously.
JR.You know, I think that's probably right. The main thing they've tried to raise is that Massachusetts was 47th in job creation in that period, a statistic that came up during the Republican primaries. They don't want to make -- they want to say that Romney is inconsistent and all of those cuts are kind of consistent to the persona he presented in the primaries. But I tell you, Susan made the point that the citizen debate, if you will, is going to be a tougher format for Obama.
JR.Imagine if the caller were at that debate and posed that question to Romney. That was rather well-stated. And it'd be very interesting to see how he'd answer her.
PONNURUIt is eerie how often the number 47 comes up in this presidential race.
PONNURUIt just haunts this race.
PONNURU4.7 percent was the unemployment rate when Romney left.
REHMLet's go to Elkhart, Ind. Good morning, Curtis.
CURTISGood morning. Glad to be on the show.
REHMThank you. Go right ahead, sir.
CURTISWell, I just called in. I'm an Obama supporter, and I'm -- I'm going to tell you, I think it -- and this is just my opinion. I'm a working man. I worked all my life. I just retired. And all those facts and stuff kind of went over at work in people's heads. And I know my president is a lot smarter and a lot sharper than what he showed last night. But it's just like a basketball game. If you're a good team, you might not win the first quarter, but the fourth quarter, you always win. And I'm sure he's going to come back.
PAGEYou know, Curtis, great point. A lot of that stuff went over my head, too, I got to say. So...
JR.All of us.
REHMEarlier in the hour, I mentioned the previous presidents who have done poorly in their first debates. Several of them came back to win the election. I mean, Reagan in 1984 had a terrible first debate, came back, had a terrific second one, won that election, 49 states. George W. Bush had a bad first debate against John Kerry in 2004 -- I was there as well -- and yet he came back and won the presidency.
PAGESo as you say, it's the first quarter, but it's the first quarter in the last month. I mean, it's not like we've got a long campaign ahead of us. We're in a period where every day matters and where these next two presidential debates, they really loom as really important.
REHMSo do you, E.J., see the president changing tactics substantially?
JR.I think the answer is yes. My -- one of my favorite facts about Elkhart, Ind. is that their daily newspaper is called The Elkhart Truth. I love that open declaration. And I think the truth in what the caller said is that no one can deny how competitive Barack Obama is. I think the basketball metaphor is a good one in this case 'cause he loves the game. And he just doesn't like to lose. And I am absolutely certain that he won't like the criticism he got. He might rebel against it a little bit.
JR.But he knows he took it on the chin, and he's not going to let that happen a second time. The question is, does -- what does Romney do the next time? Does Romney figure out some other way to go at him? But I agree that Obama is -- can be, when he has to be, a fourth-quarter player.
REHMHere's an email from Joan, who says, "I am a strong Obama supporter, but I was very disappointed in the president's performance. I wanted to hear a conversation about women's issues and explanation of the 47 percent comment, immigration and marriage equality. Romney again changed his position on key issues, and the president did not call him out on these issues. I hope the president can recover." That's from Joan. What do you think, Susan?
PAGEI think it's remarkable, the number of Obama supporters who have reached out to us with phone calls or emails today and made this very point that they were, you know, they could -- you go into these debates if you're a partisan, wanting to cheer your guy on and anxious to conclude that he did best -- and the fact that we're hearing from these people who want to vote for Obama -- and I suspect will continue to vote for Obama when it comes right down to it -- are disappointed in how he did last night.
REHMI think here is another view from Casey in Akron, Ohio -- certainly, an important state in this election -- who says, "I'm a little shocked by how superficial the winning and losing aspects of the debate have been from the news analysts. I feel as though Romney talked a lot, scored some one-liners, but there was no real substance and no actual plans presented. I thought the way to win a debate is by presenting a better plan and defending that plan. To use his own one-liner, repeating the same things does not make them true. I did not see anything concrete from Romney." Ramesh.
PONNURUWell, I think that it's not just a matter of style and delivery that makes people say that Obama lost and Romney won. And it's not -- that's not the reason why even Obama supporters, as we've heard on the show, are making that case. I think if you'll think about these particular arguments that were made, Romney almost always sort of got the last word. If Obama made a claim against him, Romney denied it, a sort of the opposite. And Obama never sort of came back again and again on those issues. And I think for that reason, you'd have to say Romney won.
PAGEI think the most effective thing Romney did wasn't the one-liners. It was coming back and again and again to people's disappointment about the economy and their hopes that it would be better by now under the Obama administration.
REHMBut without presenting an alternative plan.
JR.The, you know, I very much sympathize with that last email because you can win a debate on style if you can say anything you please and not get effectively challenged on it. And that's why I think the next week is so important because I think there were a lot of things that Mitt Romney said that were either questionable or flatly untrue. And that's going to come out in the coming period. But I think that unites...
REHMRamesh, do you disagree with that, that Romney said things that were untrue?
PONNURUI'm sure that, you know, it would be shocking if a presidential candidate from a major party didn't say something that was untrue or that I didn't think was untrue. I did not find his remarks as dishonest as E.J. did, and I probably have a more negative view about how accurate or honest Obama was. You know, one thing that Obama said that I was sort of surprised by, I have never heard him as explicitly say that the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 -- the Bush tax cuts as E.J. reminded us -- led to the financial crisis.
PONNURUI am not aware of any significant body of economic thought that supports that view, and it would be very interesting to see how the Democrats back that up.
JR.Oh, he said over and over again that it was the Bush policies, including the tax cuts. And there is a very significant body of economic theory. Jonathan Rauch actually has a great piece on this in the National Journal's supplement on the economy, where the concentration of wealth at the higher end, the radical concentration of wealth we now have, is very bad for economic growth. And so I think that you really need a real offensive against supply-side theory now because I think it blew up in 2007, 2008.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." To Orlando, Fla. Good morning, Nabil. (sp?)
NABILGood morning. And the way I see it is Mitt Romney comes in, and he has one goal. That is to win the presidential election. And he has spent a lot of money, a lot of time, energy to -- in preparation for last night's debate, you know, backed by his two weeks of preparation with mock debates with some really good people around him, preparing him for this.
NABILThe president comes in running a country with all sorts of concerns -- security concerns, economic concerns -- and who knows what he was briefed on this morning, in the security briefing yesterday, what he was briefed on just before the debate coming into this one debate. And he might have been distracted because of that. So I think they both have different things on their mind, and I think it showed yesterday.
REHMInteresting point. Susan.
PAGEI think that's a good point. Sometimes we don't know for years or decades what is going on behind the scenes in terms of an international crisis averted or, you know, there are -- obviously, the presidency is just a huge job. And that's -- I think that's a fair point, that he didn't rehearse as much, that he's got lots of things on his plate. So that may be one explanation that only with the benefit of some passage of some time we'll know in its fullest detail.
JR.I heard somebody mention that smack in the middle of the debate last night while I was watching it. I think it's a really interesting point. It could be true. And I hope, if it's true, we find out someday.
REHMHere's an email from Stuart in New Jersey, who says, "Recently, Gov. Romney has been moving slightly to the center. Last night, he moved a little more, speaking favorably about regulation, which was interesting, and saying that government should help people. With this -- will this move help Romney more with the undecided or hurt him more with his base?" Ramesh.
PONNURUWell, a couple of things. First, I think that there was a rhetorical shift to the center, but it's worth noting it is rhetorical. It's not as though Romney ever previously said all regulation must go. He'd always left himself that opening. As for whether the base is going to be upset, I think the answer is no. I think right now the base, particularly given the last few weeks, the core Republicans just want to see a winner. And they've really united behind Romney. And short of, you know, some actual huge move left, they're going to forgive him anything.
JR.I have one compound word: Etch-a-Sketch. We really saw it last night.
PAGEYes. I think that's a great point because I think that for conservatives right now, they were so concerned this is going to be a blowout election, that they had lost an opportunity to defeat a president. They thought there could be possibly with consequences for the Senate and the House. And they -- I think, yes, last night gave them kind of a shot of confidence that Romney is going to be competitive in this race, and that means that when he talks about maintaining education funding or the need for business regulation, they're going to give him a pass on that.
JR.That's an important point about the Senate and the House. I think Obama can come back from this. But if he had started -- if he had been really strong last night and had started a cascade in his favor, Democrats would have had a much better chance of taking the House than you have now where Obama is got to catch up again a little bit.
PONNURUAnd the effect on donors, I think, is substantial.
REHMWell, here's the final word on this from Carol, who says, "Very glad both men took the high road last night. Mitt Romney, who had been characterized by sound bites and negative ads till now, finally defined himself and his positions in a positive way." Last word. And I want to thank you, Susan Page, Ramesh Ponnuru, E.J. Dionne. Thank you, all. On to the next debate between the vice-presidential candidates next Thursday and then, a week later, a second presidential debate. Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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