Throughout his second bid for the presidency, Mitt Romney has said repeatedly he could not wait for the chance to stand on a debate stage with Barack Obama and not only hold him accountable for his record during the past four years, but outline his own plans for the future.
He proved Wednesday night it was no idle boast.
After appearing somewhat thunderstruck for the first 20 minutes of his first presidential debate, understandable when considering Romney had never been on a stage so grand while Obama encounters them daily, the Republican nominee settled into a relentless attack on the Democratic incumbent’s first term and said his results should disqualify him from winning a second.
Along the way, a candidate derided as too stiff and unable to connect personally detailed stories of people he had met on the campaign trail, and how their life stories not only bolstered his proposals but indicted the president’s record.
He robustly defended his own record as governor of Massachusetts - something he rarely talks about on the campaign trail - and avoided even one mention of his business tenure leading Bain Capital.
And Romney pivoted from that defense to an offensive posture sure to resonate in a country depleted by rampant partisanship.
He said his success in working with Democrats in passing his state’s 2006 universal health care law highlighted not just his management ability, but his skill at uniting those divided by party lines.
A president known for a gift of oratory was reduced to a closing statement in which he gave an airy pledge to keep fighting for the middle class.
Romney, in contrast, closed by painting a detailed vision of how a first term under him with be different from a second term under Obama when it comes to job creation, deficit reduction, and maintaining the strength of the US military.
“I know this is bigger than an election about the two of us as individuals. It’s bigger than our respective parties. It’s an election about the course of America,” said Romney, getting the debate’s final word.
The net result was all Romney could have hoped for over 90 minutes, considering he entered the night trailing in many national polls and, more importantly, lagged behind Obama in polling in key battleground states.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who was denounced by his fellow Republicans for raising expectations during last Sunday’s talk shows by predicting that the talk Thursday would be of a reinvigorated Romney campaign, ended up sounding prescient, not braggadocios.
Obama opened strong, falling back on a critique Democrats used to great effect in their national nominating convention just a month ago: He said Romney’s plans for the country - where they have been detailed - simply didn’t add up.
“I would just say this to the American people,” Obama told hundreds in the debate hall at the University of Denver and millions more watching at home.
“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 Governor Romney’s plan may work for you,” the president said. “But I think math, common sense, and our history shows us that’s not a recipe for job growth. Look, we’ve tried this. We’ve tried both approaches.”
Romney rejected that characterization, saying he would not favor any tax cut that added to the deficit, and would boost government revenue through economic growth, not tax increases.
But then he seized the challenger’s advantage by analyzing the incumbent’s record.
“You’ve been president four years,” he told Obama, standing about 10 feet away, the first time the two have shared a stage since attending a Gridiron Dinner in Washington eight years ago.
“You said you’d cut the deficit in half. It’s now four years later. We still have trillion-dollar deficits. The CBO says we’ll have a trillion-dollar deficit each of the next four years. If you’re re-elected, we’ll get to a trillion-dollar debt,” he added. “I mean, you have said before you’d cut the deficit in half. And this - I love this idea of $4 trillion in cuts. You found $4 trillion of ways to reduce or to get closer to a balanced budget, except we still show trillion-dollar deficits every year. That doesn’t get the job done.”
When Obama tried to strike back, Romney cut him off.
“There has to be revenue in addition to cuts. Now, Governor Romney has ruled out revenue,” said the president, lobbying for tax increases as well as spending cuts to balance the budget while preserving critical social programs. “He’s ruled out revenue.
Romney replied curtly, “Absolutely.”
When Obama, whose rose to office four years ago with talk of hope that inspired a nation entering the depths of a recession, told stories of people he met who rely on Social Security, Romney talked of small business owners in New Hampshire and Appleton, Wis., who told him they are thinking of dropping health insurance because they can’t afford the costs of Obamacare.
Then, in a section of the debate devoted to their views on the role of government in society, Romney fell back on a practiced part of his stump speech where he recites lines of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and talks about how they inform his views on the subject.
He was bolstered by the emblem of the Commission on Presidential Debates, which hung behind the candidates and embraces snippets of that language.
“The role of government is to promote and protect the principles of those documents,” said Romney. “And what we’re seeing right now is, in my view, a trickle-down government approach, which has government thinking it can do a better job than free people pursuing their dreams. And it’s not working.”
Boring in, Romney added: “And the proof of that is 23 million people out of work. The proof of that is 1 out of 6 people in poverty. The proof of that is we’ve gone from 32 million on food stamps to 47 million on food stamps. The proof of that is that 50 percent of college graduates this year can’t find work.”
Obama responded by highlighting how his view of government would be manifested in a commitment to better public schools, more funding for community colleges, and job training programs.
“Governor Romney, I genuinely believe cares about education, but when he tells a student that, you know, ‘You should borrow money from your parents to go to college,’ you know, that indicates the degree to which, you know, there may not be as much of a focus on the fact that folks like myself, folks like (first lady) Michelle (Obama), kids probably who attend University of Denver, just don’t have that option.”
In the final debate question, Romney turned a negative - how he wants to repeal the federal universal health care law modeled after the state one he signed into law as governor - into a positive.
He cited it not as an example of a policy flip-flop, but one of his ability to be a political uniter.
“I had the great experience - it didn’t seem like it at the time - of being elected in a state where my legislature was 87 percent Democrat. And that meant I figured out from Day One I had to get along and I had to work across the aisle to get anything done,” said Romney.
He said he would sit down with Democratic leaders as well as Republican ones the day after he is elected president to seek common ground.
“Republicans and Democrats both love America,” Romney declared. “But we need to have leadership - leadership in Washington that will actually bring people together and get the job done and could not care less if - if it’s a Republican or a Democrat. I’ve done it before. I’ll do it again.”
Obama, nearing the end of a lengthy period of being on the defensive, was sharp in his response.
“Well, first of all, I think Governor Romney’s going to have a busy first day, because he’s also going to repeal Obamacare, which will not be very popular among Democrats as you’re sitting down with them,” he said.
Romney actually pledged to do that on the first day he was president, through state waivers, not the day after he is elected.
The president continued: “My philosophy has been, I will take ideas from anybody, Democrat or Republican, as long as they’re advancing the cause of making middle-class families stronger and giving ladders of opportunity to the middle class.”
He said that approach had already yielded middle-class tax cuts, cuts in government spending and waste, the end of combat operations in Iraq and soon to be the same in Afghanistan, as well as the killing of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden.
“We’ve seen progress even under Republican control of the House of Representatives,” the president said. “But, ultimately, part of being principled, part of being a leader is, A, being able to describe exactly what it is that you intend to do, not just saying, ‘I’ll sit down,’ but you have to have a plan. Number two, what’s important is occasionally you’ve got to say no, to folks both in your own party and in the other party.”
With that, the candidates moved to their closing statements and then to a repeat of the handshake at center stage that opened their debate.
In the second of two campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination, Romney stood there as Obama’s equal, having made good on his promise to challenge the president directly when they finally squared off face-to-face.Glen Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.