Editor’s note: This column was written prior to Monday night’s debate. BOCA RATON, Fla. – This year, in the race for the White House, the debates have really mattered. The issues, not so much.
The most substantive clash, in terms of what voters say they care about, was not between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. At Centre College in Kentucky, Vice President Joe Biden and Paul Ryan talked about jobs, economic growth, deficits, entitlements and America’s place in a changing world. For those of us whose job it was to keep up, the encounter was exhausting – and illuminating.
Biden and Ryan outlined sharp differences in how the two parties see the nation. Biden championed community and compassion; Ryan, individual initiative. When they ventured into the wilds of wonkishness, you knew the arduous journey had a purpose.
The presidential debates, by contrast, were much less interesting as seminars on policy. But they were vastly more important to the country, of course, because of the enormous impact they had on the race.
The first meeting between Obama and Romney, at the University of Denver, came at a moment when the Romney campaign was in something akin to free fall. Reasonable people were beginning to ask whether this contest would even be close.
A well-orchestrated Democratic National Convention gave Obama a statistically significant lead in national polls, as well as in surveys in the most hotly contested swing states. Then the revelation of Romney’s “47 percent” remarks further weakened his poll numbers – and unsettled the GOP faithful.
Prominent Republicans complained privately that Romney might not be up to the task of challenging for the presidency, and there was even talk of redirecting campaign funds to Senate and House races rather than wasting them on a presidential bid that seemed likely to lose.
The Denver debate not only halted Romney’s slide, which would have been remarkable enough, but also boosted him into the lead, at least temporarily. For two weeks, it was the Obama campaign that found itself reeling.
Why did Obama seem so passive, so unprepared? Minutes after the debate ended, former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele told me that “Romney will be up by three points nationally” within a few days. Steele’s prediction, alas, wasn’t far off.
But Obama did his best “Comeback Kid” impersonation in last week’s town hall debate at Hofstra University on Long Island. According to Gallup, voters perceived that Obama won that contest by 51 percent to 38 percent – a decisive enough margin to halt his slide in the polls and reanimate the spirits of down-in-the-dumps Democrats.
So the old wisdom about how debates “don’t move the needle much” wasn’t very wise this year. But the presidential encounters were mostly about style and presence – who was aggressive, who seemed presidential, who looked his opponent in the eye, who showed a sense of humor, who interrupted whom.
All this is important, because character is a vital criterion for choosing a president. But so are, you know, issues, policies and plans.
About these concrete details, the presidential debates told us practically nothing new.
Going into the last two weeks of the campaign, we still have no idea how Romney would manage to cut income tax rates by 20 percent without increasing the deficit. We don’t know which tax deductions he would target for possible elimination, although he did say at Hofstra that his plan might be to establish an overall deductions cap and let taxpayers decide which ones to take. But he still has not made the slightest attempt to demonstrate that the arithmetic adds up.
We know Romney envisions a future in which the U.S. economy returns to full employment. But we still have no real idea how all the tax-cutting he proposes is supposed to get us there.
We know he promises 12 million new jobs – but we also know that many economists believe the U.S. economy could add that many jobs in the next four years with no policy changes, assuming the recovery gains a little steam.
We know what Obama has done in office – averting a depression, saving the auto industry, passing health care reform, ending the war in Iraq, killing Osama bin Laden. But we still don’t really know how Obama sees the next four years. He spells out his policies, but he doesn’t tell us where they lead.
Obama, as I see it, still has a slight edge. Nothing is guaranteed. The candidate who shows us a credible path to a brighter future is probably the one who wins.Eugene Robinson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist. Email him at eugenerobinson@ washpost.com.