Mitt Romney had a good night -- a great night, in fact. If it's possible to "win" a debate, Romney won it. He was forceful, confident, seemed sure of his facts (even when they were wrong) and offered a contrast both in policy and style to President Barack Obama, who looked tired, slow on the uptake and unprepared.
Debates are an important exercise in democracy -- a chance for the public to see the two people who would lead the free world standing toe to toe. But they have rarely changed the outcome of the election. The exceptions may be 1960, when John F. Kennedy looked fit and healthy and Richard Nixon looked wan and ill, or 1980, when Ronald Reagan asked the classic question: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" On policy, voters deserve more clarity than we heard from either candidate in their first debate. Consider three key areas: taxes, jobs and the deficit.
Taxes: Is the former Massachusetts governor really proposing a "$5 trillion tax cut," as the president charged? No. Like any good politician, Obama is assuming the worst about his opponent's ideas.
Romney is proposing to cut tax rates by 20 percent (from 35 percent to 28 percent at the high end). He says his plan would be "revenue neutral" because he would close tax loopholes and eliminate or limit deductions. He floated the idea of limiting itemized deductions this week, including the one for mortgage interest, but Romney has been reluctant to lay out a fuller proposal for fear of having it picked apart. That means we have no idea whether what he says is true or not. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center has concluded that it's impossible to make his tax plan "revenue neutral," and we suspect the center is right -- unless Romney and his acolytes make unrealistic assumptions.
We favor a flatter, simpler tax code for individuals. But we think it should produce more revenue and be more progressive (wealthy Americans should pay a bit more). Obama's plan calls for raising rates on the rich, but no tax reform.
Jobs: Romney promises to "help create 12 million new jobs." Sounds good until you realize that unless the U.S. falls back into recession, that's about how many jobs will be created no matter who wins. Moody's Analytics reported in August that it expected 12 million jobs to be created by 2016, reports Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post's fact-checker. As we have said repeatedly, presidents have far less power to "create" jobs -- or destroy them -- than many voters seem to believe. The global economy is a very big place.
The deficit: Obama likes to claim that his deficit-reduction plan is similar to one proposed by the deficit reduction commission that he appointed -- Simpson-Bowles. It's not. Obama relies on gimmicks to get to $4 trillion of deficit reduction, such as counting about $1 trillion in budget cuts that he and Congress have already agreed on. Simpson-Bowles spread the work over nine years; Obama looks out 10 years, and a lot of his savings are backloaded. Compared side by side, Simpson-Bowles comes to about $6.6 trillion in deficit reduction; Obama's plan, about $3.5 trillion.
And Romney? He says he'll reduce the deficit. He just hasn't said very much about how. As noted, there are big questions about his tax plan.
We could go on -- to health care policy for example -- but you get the point. It was a better debate than most. But on policy matters, the picture remains murky.
-- Milwaukee Journal Sentinel