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.