Okay, thus far it’s just one major pundit, the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne, whose column posted at 1:58 p.m. demolishes the media’s Conventional Wisdom of last night and this morning, which focused mainly on Romney’s two gaffes, and concluded that Obama had won but only barely. Binders-full-of-women is irresistible fun, but ultimately unimportant; Romney just misspoke, G.W. Bush-style. And the clarity of Obama’s Rose Garden statement could be debated; it could depend on what the meaning of “is” is.
But now the focus among the punditry will change. Dionne captures it:
Any high school debate coach would tell a student that declaring, “Believe me because I said so,” is not an argument. Yet Romney confused biography with specificity and boasting with answering a straightforward inquiry. “Well, of course, they add up,” Romney insisted of his budget numbers. “I — I was — I was someone who ran businesses for 25 years, and balanced the budget. I ran the Olympics and balanced the budget.” Romney was saying: Trust me because I’m an important guy who has done important stuff. He gave his listeners no basis on which to verify the trust he demanded.
Romney’s stonewalling was so obvious that it opened the way for one of Obama’s most effective lines of the evening: “If somebody came to you, Governor, with a plan that said, here, I want to spend $7 or $8 trillion, and then we’re going to pay for it, but we can’t tell you until maybe after the election how we’re going to do it, you wouldn’t have taken such a sketchy deal. And neither should you, the American people, because the math doesn’t add up.” Obama sought to make that point in the last debate. This time he had a metaphor and a story to go with the arithmetic.
Romney also covertly disclosed that he, like George W. Bush before him, has every intention of cutting taxes on the rich. Like Bush, he used stealthy language to try to achieve a great fiscal coverup.
Here was Romney on Tuesday: “I will not, under any circumstances, reduce the share that’s being paid by the highest-income taxpayers.” Here was Bush in 2000: “After my plan is in place, the wealthiest Americans will pay a higher percentage of taxes [than] they do today.”
This really matters: Romney intends, as Bush did, to push for steep tax cuts for the wealthy. His only pledge is that he’ll keep the share of the total tax take paid by the wealthy unchanged, presumably by reducing other taxes too. And this is supposed to lead to lower deficits? How?
The most instructive contrast between Debate I and Debate II was the extent to which Romney’s ideas crumbled at the slightest contact with challenge. Romney and Paul Ryan are erecting a Potemkin village designed to survive only until the polls close on Nov. 6. They cannot say directly that they really believe in slashing taxes on the rich and backing away from so much of what government does because they know that neither idea will sell. So they offer soothing language to the middle class, photo ops at homeless programs to convey compassion and a steady stream of attacks on Obama, aimed at shifting all the attention his way.…
In the first debate, Obama let Romney back into the race by failing to shake his opponent’s self-presentation. But Romney also put himself into contention by pretending to be a moderate, shelving his plutocratic side and hiding his party’s long-term objectives.
In the second debate, the disguise fell. Romney revealed more of himself than he wanted to and asked voters to endorse a radical tax-cutting program without providing them the details that matter. Sketchy is one word for this. Deceptive is another.
Romney’s candidacy will not survive an ad by the Obama campaign that explains what the meaning of “reduce the share” is. In actual math. And that asks voters whether they think Romney intended that they think he meant … something else.