I found last night’s presidential debate between President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney dull and boring. But just as disappointing was the supposed analysis by the various pundits last night. From Fox to MSNBC to CNN, the analysts talked about body language, facial expressions, speech patterns and style, none of which will help Main Street voters make an informed decision on Nov. 6.
Conventional wisdom says that the debates are really for the casual voter. These outside-the-Beltway voters are supposed to be the people who are going to make up their minds based on what they see and hear during the televised contests.
But in reality, these contests are for the chattering class in Washington, not for the casual voter; even the candidates seem to realize this. The further you live from the District, the less likely you are to know about terms such as Solyndra, the individual mandate, sequestration, revenue neutral, etc.
There was no clear line of demarcation between the two candidates. I’d hazard a guess that the general public has absolutely no idea what either candidate was talking about during the debate. This was not a game-changing debate, but rather a status quo debate.
Obama didn’t hurt himself and Romney didn’t help himself.
The conventional wisdom from the punditocracy is that Romney won last night; of course, they conveniently forgot to define what victory was. I think Romney lost the debate. On several occasions, Romney kept saying that he agreed with the president. This won’t help him with the casual voter.
For instance, Romney seems to agree with Obama on education. The only disagreement that he would have more money controlled by the state than the federal government. To the general public, it’s a distinction without a difference:
ROMNEY: We know that the path we’re taking is not working. It’s time for a new path.
LEHRER: All right. Let’s go through some specifics in terms of what — how each of you views the role of government. How do — education. Does the federal government have a responsibility to improve the quality of public education in America?
ROMNEY: Well, the primary responsibility for education is — is, of course, at the state and local level. But the federal government also can play a very important role. And I — and I agree with Secretary Arne Duncan, he’s — some ideas he’s put forward on Race to the Top, not all of them, but some of them I agree with and — and congratulate him for pursuing that. The federal government can get local and — and state schools to do a better job.
Well, if I am a casual voter and keep hearing a candidate say he agrees with his opponent; then why vote for him when I can vote for the person he agrees with, who is the incumbent? Why go with government light, when I can get the real thing?
Meanwhile, the casual voter who may be unemployed has no idea how either candidate is going to create jobs for those needing work. Small business owners have no idea how either candidate is going to reduce regulations to help create a more business-friendly environment for them.
And that’s because neither candidate offered any specifics. I have a degree in tax accounting and I could barely follow the exchanges on tax policy. Here’s an excerpt:
ROMNEY: Mr. President, you’re absolutely right, which is that, with regards to 97 percent of the businesses are not — not taxed at the 35 percent tax rate; they’re taxed at a lower rate. But those businesses that are in the last 3 percent of businesses happen to employ half — half of all the people who work in small business. Those are the businesses that employ one-quarter of all the workers in America. And your plan is to take their tax rate from 35 percent to 40 percent.
OBAMA: Jim, I — you may want to move onto another topic, but I — I would just say this to the American people. If you believe that we can cut taxes by $5 trillion and add $2 trillion in additional spending that the military is not asking for, $7 trillion — just to give you a sense, over 10 years, that’s more than our entire defense budget — and you think that by closing loopholes and deductions for the well-to-do, somehow you will not end up picking up the tab, then Gov. Romney’s plan may work for you.
Romney may have won on style points, but he failed to draw a red line in the sand that would clearly identify how he would govern differently than Obama. There is a clear difference between Romney and Rick Santorum or Ron Paul. But Romney failed to make his case for how he is different than Obama on the major issues.
If there are only marginal differences between Romney and Obama, then the casual voter will stay with the incumbent and not the challenger. Romney has to do a much better job in giving voters a reason to change horses; if he doesn’t, Obama will win reelection, and that’s not debatable.
(Raynard Jackson, a registered Republican and political consultant, is president and chief executive of Raynard Jackson & Associates, a Washington-based public relations/government affairs firm.)