Mitt Romney won the first presidential debate of the 2012 election campaign as convincingly (and on the same day) that Miguel Cabrera captured Major League Baseball’s first Triple Crown in 45 seasons.
Winning a debate and winning the election are two different things, of course, but there were several winners besides just Romney and Cabrera on Wednesday.
Television ratings weren’t completely compiled by my press time, but expectations were that an audience of 50 million would be watching President Barack Obama and challenger Romney square off. On a night filled with televised 162nd-game drama for baseball playoff spots and home-field advantages, if that many actually tuned in it’s a big win for the networks.
Whatever the final tally of voters who watched the debate, either live on television or later on DVR or the web, they can all be counted as winners, too. Despite the limitations of these national debates, and the propensity of candidates to regurgitate their rehearsed campaign sound bites, viewers still got to see the best glimpse yet of the two candidates discussing the issues without a script or teleprompter.
Romney’s strong showing—considered surprisingly strong by many, including me—makes the media, fundraisers and bookmakers all winners. Fortunes beyond imagination are on the line to be made or lost when these quadrennial contests feature two thoroughbreds going neck and neck down the stretch.
Pundits were quick to pooh-pooh the night’s performances in terms of knockout punches or one-line zingers, and yet there were a couple of pretty good phrases that got airplay. Romney’s reference to “trickle-down government” wasn’t original, but appropriate and catchy, as was his characterization of an “economy tax” on middle-income families.
Fact-checking has become a cottage industry because of all the half truths and whole lies tossed around in campaigns, and both men were guilty of at least flirting with fiction as their lips moved. All the detail talk of trillions of dollars and millions of jobs and deficits and cuts and revenue and expenditures and projections and forecasts and studies simply create a context in which the average viewer has no bearings, no reference points and thus no true capacity for comparison and judgment.
Still, there was one area in which the candidates drew a not only stark but defining contrast. One issue on which the differences between the two are like night and day. Ironically, it’s a subject as old as our constitutional republic itself—and it’s more than telling that while Romney looked the most presidential discussing it, President Obama avoided bringing it up at all.
The biggest winner Wednesday night was federalism.
Very early on, Romney talked about getting dollars for training programs “back to the states,” and soon honed in more specifically on federalist philosophy in describing his approaches to tackling the deficit.
He first declared that the litmus test for federal programs in his administration would be whether they were valuable enough to “borrow money from China to pay for.”
“Number two,” he continued, “I’ll take programs that are currently good programs but I think could be run more efficiently at the state level and send them to the state.”
Later, Romney openly rebuked the president’s top-down government perspective on Medicaid, recalling that most governors supported more state authority and autonomy.
“The governors, Republican and Democrats, said, ‘please let us do that. We can care for our own poor in so much better and more effective a way than having the federal government tell us how to care for our poor,’” he said.
Emphasizing what U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in 1932 described as “one of the happy incidents of the federal system,” Romney praised the concept of letting states take different approaches to solving their citizens’ problems.
“One of the magnificent things about this country is the whole idea that states are the laboratories of democracy,” he said. “Don’t have the federal government tell everybody what kind of training programs they have to have and what kind of Medicaid they have to have. Let states do this.”
Top-down governing from Washington was a recurring theme in Obama’s remarks, even when he tried to use Romney’s health-care plan in Massachusetts as justification for Obamacare.
“What we did in Massachusetts is a model for the nation, state by state,” Romney countered, not a model for the federal government to usurp 10th Amendment powers.
Noting that Massachusetts ranked first among states in education, Romney rejected Obama’s assertion that he didn’t believe in more teachers, again deferring to state authority.
“Every school district, every state should make that decision on their own,” he said.
It’s about time a candidate addressed the real problem behind the national debt, as well as most other ills emanating from Washington, which is the erosion and abandonment of federalism.
“Jobs and education for all,” we must remember, is a Communist Party USA slogan—the furthest stretch from federalism’s cornerstones of individual liberty and free enterprise achievement.
It’s more than scary when that party’s principles start sounding mainstream.