Thursday, October 04, 2012

Romney in the Debate: Stiff, Smarmy, and An Almost Manic Inability to Argue

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

In the classic comedy movie "Animal House," the dean of Faber College tells the members of Delta House their mid-term grades.  As he runs through the list, he starts with the C students and runs all the way down to the student with a 0.00 GPA.  Just when the audience thinks that it cannot get any worse, the dean announces that Daniel Simpson Day ("D-Day") "has no grade point average," because he has incompletes in every course.

Barack Obama had his ups and downs in the first Presidential debate last night, but he earned a decent (but surely disappointing to his supporters) B or B- overall.  Mitt Romney has no grade, because he continues to insist on submitting incomplete work.

This strategy, by which Romney continues to believe that he can become President simply by telling people as little as possible, is surely not a matter of Romney's having D-Day's insouciance.  (That would, among other things, be too French!)  Romney may or may not be able to debate -- indeed, he may or may not be able to think -- but if he can, he apparently knows that he dare not say what he really thinks, nor can he admit what he really plans to do.  This requires him to robotically repeat statements, rather than responding to his opponent's arguments, even when his statements (during months of campaigning, and repeatedly during last night's debate) have been exposed as nonsense.  Yet, although I have deliberately avoided reading or watching any post-debate coverage, I am sure that there are people who think he did well last night, by staying "on message."

As the title of this post indicates, Romney's speaking style is rather odd.  He manages to maintain an inhuman quality (especially when he is uncomfortably reciting irrelevant anecdotes about "real people" he has met while campaigning), all the while exuding an attitude that variously mixes smarmy earnestness, smug overconfidence, and a kind of panicky eagerness to please.  In debate terms, his strategy was to "spread" -- saying as many things as possible, to see if he can claim victory by later being able to point to something that his opponent ignored.  Unfortunately, his lists showed no coherence or even minimal organization.  The only consistent theme was that he had a few talking points that he wanted to hit over and over, and he apparently wanted it to appear that he was good at listing things.

On the substance, such as it was, the most obvious problem for Romney is that he continues to run on a tax cut plan that has become some kind of shape-shifting zombie.  Both the moderator and his opponent tried, understandably, to get Romney to explain how his plan would add up.  Romney's response: If it does not add up, then I am not in favor of it!  In one of Obama's better moments, he described Romney's campaign as having spent 18 months pushing something, and now: "Never mind."

Seriously, Romney actually defended himself by saying that he could not possibly be advocating what Obama described, because he (Romney) would never do anything that raised taxes on the middle class (smarmy earnestness on vivid display) or that raised the deficit.  So what about those tax cuts and military spending increases?  He is still all in favor of them, it is just that he is not in favor of anything that does bad things.

This bears more than a passing resemblance to the problem that Professor Dorf and I have described in our soon-to-be-published paper about the debt ceiling, in which we describe a situation in which a president faces three options, only two of which can be accomplished at any one time.  Romney's approach is, apparently, to say that he will always do all three.  He is the man, to use a different analogy, who tells people that they can eat as much as they want, do whatever they want, sleep as much as they want, and still be rich and in great physical condition.  What's not to like!

Romney's minimal attempts to go further than pure denial boiled down to three things: (1) There are studies that say that the numbers do add up, (2) the extra money will come from all the economic growth that he will create, and (3) nuh-uh.  The studies that Romney vaguely cited, of course, either were written by his own advisors or quietly concluded that his numbers really did not add up.  He still refused to say what he was going to do to eliminate tax deductions, which is why point #2 is such news: Romney came out last night as an unabashed Laffer curve devotee.

This really is amazing.  Almost as an after-thought, at one point he said that the "extra revenues" that he would collect would be from all of that economic growth that his plan surely would create.  Note that he is NOT merely making the more modest (but still contestable) point that the size of the revenue losses would be mitigated by some economic growth: that a $5 trillion revenue loss would be reduced to, say, $4 trillion when the economy recovers.  He said that revenues would go UP -- even though he made it very clear that he remains unalterably committed to reducing tax rates.  This means that he believes that he can have a plan in which tax rates go down but tax revenue goes up.  Full-on Laffer, which has been definitively rejected by everyone except, apparently, the people whom Romney is trying to please.  Charlatans and cranks, indeed.

The other major point of contention last night was, of course, Medicare.  Here, Romney is fortunate that he apparently lacks any sense of embarrassment, because he made an even bigger fool of himself trying to discuss these issues than he did in punting on his tax plan.  He obviously had been told to say, as many times as possible, that President Obama has cut $716 billion from Medicare "to pay for Obamacare."  He probably mentioned the $716 billion number seven or eight times; so, in Romneyworld, this apparently counts as a win.

Obama did not even bother to point out that Romney's running mate relied on those same cost savings.  He did, however, point out more than once that these cuts were endorsed by AARP, and he even alluded to the good deal that his policies created for health care providers, who approved of the reimbursement cuts in return for an expanded pool of insured customers (a pool that would shrink under Romney, as people would be thrown off their private insurance plans).  Romney, incapable of actually arguing, simply repeated himself.

Similarly, when Obama rightly attacked Romney's voucher plans, he described how Romney's plan to give seniors a chance to stay with traditional Medicare would not work, because of what economists call "cherry-picking" (a term that Obama did not use during the debate), where Medicare would end up covering the oldest and sickest seniors, putting further budgetary pressure on the plan.  Romney's response: But Obama cut $716 billion!

Finally, consider probably the biggest surprise of all: The return of death panels!  Romney tried to make a big deal out of the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), which was set up in the ACA to recommend cost reduction techniques for the health care system.  Romney had the gall to describe this as "unelected" government employees "getting between doctor and patient" to decide what care could be provided.  Obama pointed out that IPAB has no such power, and moreover that it is simply set up to try to find "best practices" in the private sector and get other private actors (as well as government agencies) to adopt them.

Romney's response: The private sector always works better.  Really.  He cannot, or will not, argue.  Obama's entire argument was that the private sector innovates, and IPAB will highlight those private innovations.  Romney's response was that the private sector innovates.

In tomorrow's post, I will discuss some other issues raised in the debate, including some unfortunate areas in which both candidates were in agreement.  For now, however, I will start to read the commentary, to see which side's spin is winning.  From the standpoint of watching last night's debate, however, it is easy to see that Obama is (still) capable of engaging with ideas, and responding to his opponent's arguments.  Romney is not.


Michael C. Dorf said...

I agree with all of this but I also agree with what you will by now have discovered is the post-debate consensus: that Romney was the clear winner. Why? Because Obama's poll numbers have benefited over the last two months from the growing perception that Romney is simply an out-of-touch rich guy who doesn't give a darn about average Americans. Last night, Romney repeatedly SAID that wasn't true and SAID that his policies are designed to aid the middle class and the poor. He even looked sincere saying these things. The challenge for Obama under these circumstances was to explain--simply and directly--why Romney's professions of concern for the middle class were false, given his actual policy positions. Obama pretty clearly failed the tests of simplicity and directness. You and I followed his explanation of the adverse selection problem in the voucher+traditional-Medicare plan. I'm willing to bet that at least 80% of viewers did not follow the argument because it's complicated. If you haven't thought about how insurance markets work, you need more of an explanation. It's true that a lot of this stuff is complicated and it's easier if you're willing to just make things up and repeat nonsense with confidence, so Obama had the tougher challenge than Romney. But that's the nature of the game and so Obama should have had practiced, straightforward answers. He didn't.

rhen356 said...


Neil H. Buchanan said...

I'm not at all surprised that Romney is getting some positive reviews, for the reasons Mike offers. Gutting the safety net while talking about how much he cares is Romney's new stock in trade. It's disgusting, but it apparently works on many people.

Obama, meanwhile, seemed listless -- apparently at a loss as to how Romney could be seriously saying the nonsense that he was saying. The one big mistake that Obama made, I thought, was in failing to show real passion in his closing statement.

Meanwhile, Romney will still lose Ohio because of the auto bailout (and his opposition thereto). The election will be closer than the 100-vote difference in Nate Silver's recent electoral college projections -- and it could still even swing to Romney overall -- but last night was but a mere blip on the too-long campaign.

The debate certainly gave us no more reason to think that Romney is a closet moderate, or a smart guy who's hiding his smarts behind a facade of idiocy.

Unknown said...

I'm curious -- does being wildly wrong about how you think Romney performed, compared to how he actually performed, make you think that you just might possibly be wrong on other election-related issues?

(You still apparently haven't read the post-election stuff, because you suggest that Romney has gotten "some positive reviews." So I'll fill you in. According to Gallup, Romney just completed the most dominating debate performance in its polling history, a sentiment echoed by commentators on every network and by commentators on both sides of the aisle.

Scott Martin said...

Lashon: Neil gave *his opinion* of Romney's debate performance. The fact that other people - many other people, even - disagreed with that assessment doesn't make it "wrong." It's subjective.

Romney's attack lines, however, are not subjective, and the media narrative I've been seeing today has spent a lot of time exposing the errors in those lines. You can bet the Obama campaign will do the same on the stump and in ads over the next few days. The interesting question is whether that will overcome any immediate bounce that Romney receives from last night's performance, if there is one.

matt30 said...

As much as I love to see an analysis of who stuttered the least and who was the most confident is saying whatever they said (things as a lay person I'm pretty capable of doing myself), can we have a discussion about what was actually said?

Is there a tax break for shipping companies overseas? Is the disparity between green energy and traditional energy subsidies wrong? Can you legitimately increase revenue by lowering tax rates and limiting deductions? Does Dodd-Frank enshrine too big to fail banks? Will the US really loose 7,000 jobs (in what time period?) by raising taxes on the 3% of small businesses that would be hit by Obama's tax increase?

Why is no one talking about these issues? In a debate that was unusually filled with policy discussion everyone seems to have forgotten how to discuss it.

Paul Scott said...

I was on a plane during the debate, so did not originally get to see it. My first exposure to it was reading the transcript off NPR. Having done this, I was really surprised to see that the overwhelming consensus was that Romney won. Reading it, it seemed obvious that Obama had completely crushed him.

Next, I listened to the debate. Later (since I can't sleep during a one day visit to Geneva), I watched a replay on CNN. In both the audio and video presentations, I had to agree that, stylistically, Obama lost.

I found it interesting that, for me at least, the medium mattered so much. Obama really did a poor job of presenting facts and arguments that are strongly in his favor. Mitt, on the other hand, stated either complete falsehoods or platitudes, but he stated them with conviction and confidence.

I understand the "Mitt won" perspective, but I also suspect that Obama and the non-Fox News media will be focusing on:

1. the dishonesty and

2. the lack of specifics on policy (or really, the intentional "hide the ball")

I know debates don't matter much apart from providing entertainment, but to the extent that they do matter, I think Obama wins the long game from last night, even if he lost the short game.

Troeltsch said...

Indeed, Obama was an example of pristine and uncompromised reason during the debate. I believe at one point he made the following comparison: Romney's policies are similar to (ex) President Bush's that led to the financial crisis; while Obama's where more like President Clinton's that led to one of the largest job-creation periods in history (except after the asset bubble exploded in 2001).

I have no problem with you posting a highly partisan and biased critique of the debate; just make sure to put a header above stating your preferences and biases. Otherwise, we will assume that you thoroughly enjoy mono causal, fallacious economic rhetoric that does not deserve your scrutiny. Note: I am not supporting either candidate.

Joe said...

I don't know what the example provided by the last comment is supposed to show. Some sort of equalization between the two candidates as to spin?

"I am not supporting either candidate."

One candidate is much worse than the other in the minds of many reasonable analysises. The previous comment might be inferred to suggest that such an analysis is wrong -- the two are fairly close and it would be wrong to suggest (fact checks, e.g., aside), one is much worse.

If this is the implication, it is open to serious debate.

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