Tonight's presidential debate was illuminating yet bizarre.
Illuminating, because Mitt Romney effectively made the point that he trusts the private sector better than the federal government, while President Obama made clear at every turn that he views private companies as evildoers that citizens need to be protected from. President Obama attacked ExxonMobil by name: "does anybody think that ExxonMobil needs some extra money?" Mr. Obama attacked health insurance companies, saying that Mr. Romney would leave "folks like my grandmother at the mercy of the private insurance system." Mr. Obama said Medicare is better than private insurance because "private insurers have to make a profit," which "has to come from somewhere." Mr. Obama said his health care law means "insurance companies can't jerk you around." He said before the student loan program was changed, "we were sending $60 billion to banks and lenders as middlemen." He claimed credit for "reining in the excesses of Wall Street."
Mr. Romney, by contrast, said "the private market and individual responsibility always work best." He muddied the message a bit at the end when he said regulation of banks is needed because "you couldn't have people opening up banks in their garage and making loans" (my goodness, we wouldn't want that!) and because "you need to have leverage limits." And Mr. Romney described the too-big-to-fail provision of the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory overhaul as "the biggest kiss that's been given to New York banks that I've ever seen." This isn't exactly accurate, because it subjects the banks to seizure at the whim of federal officials, which is one reason that firms were lobbying not to be named systemically important institutions. Also, some of the firms that qualify, like Wells Fargo, aren't New York-based. Finally, since President Obama is the one bashing Wall Street bankers as "fat cats," why does Mr. Romney need to get into the act of sniping at "New York banks"?
It was bizarre because Mr. Romney spent much of the debate insisting he does not plan to cut taxes, especially on the rich, and insisting that he will spend $716 billion more on Medicare than Mr. Obama will (if elected, "I'll restore that $716 billion cut to Medicare"). Mr. Obama spent much of the debate accusing Mr. Romney of having a big plan to cut taxes. Usually, it's the Democrats who don't want to cut taxes and who promise to spend more on Medicare. "I don't have a $5 trillion tax cut," Mr. Romney said at one point. "I'm not looking to cut massive taxes. There'll be no tax cut that adds to the deficit." Later, Mr. Romney said, "I will not reduce the taxes paid by upper income Americans." And again, "I 'm not in favor of a $5 trillion tax cut. That's not my plan." So on taxes, there were two positions represented on stage: a kind of status quo represented by Mr. Romney and a tax increase represented by President Obama. The third position — that tax reductions are needed — was unrepresented, though Mr. Romney did say he hoped to cut rates while keeping revenue constant after accounting for loophole closing and growth effects.
Usually, Republicans are proud to say they want to cut taxes, without needing the Democratic candidate to exaggerate their tax cutting plans.
Other highlights: President Obama had a line about his tax cuts: "by giving them those tax cuts they had a little more money in their pocket." A tax cut is a gift from the government, i.e., him, rather than money that belonged to the taxpayer in the first place. So condescending.
I can't predict the political effect of the debate. Mr. Romney seemed effective in his criticism of President Obama for putting $90 billion into "green jobs" and for the expansion in the food stamp rolls, saying to Mr. Obama at one point, "you've been president four years." My net view of it is that Mr. Obama is almost excruciatingly bad, Mr. Romney is better but still something some distance from the Platonic ideal of a consistent, free-market-oriented presidential candidate.