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The dominant post-debate opinion was that Republican Mitt Romney bested President Obama in their first made-for-TV matchup, but Mr. Romney's "victory" appeared based more on style than substance, because on substance neither candidate shined.
The format and a weak performance by moderator Jim Lehrer of the PBS News Hour allowed the candidates to stick largely to their scripted talking points. The format called for six segments on domestic topics, with each candidate given two minutes each to answer an opening question, followed by roughly 11 minutes "for a discussion of the topic."
Unfortunately Mr. Lehrer's opening questions were too overly broad to pin anyone down to specifics and the moderator failed to assert any control over the subsequent extended discussion of the topics, as the candidates plowed through his stop signals, ignored his few feeble attempts at follow-up questions, and blathered on. It was a mess. Unfortunately, organizers have locked in the same format for the Oct. 22 debate. Let's hope CBS' Bob Schieffer can do better.
So voters never learned what domestic programs Mr. Romney would push to cut or dramatically reduce to meet his contradictory goal of deficit reduction and tax rate cuts. The challenger did get off a good line about cutting any program not worth borrowing money from China to pay for. And the public learned that Mr. Romney is ready to fire Big Bird by eliminating federal subsidies for public television. That is as about as specific as it got. Likewise voters never found out what tax breaks and loopholes a president Romney would eliminate to offset those cuts in tax rates.
For his part, President Obama assured viewers that Social Security is fundamentally sound but would have to be "tweaked" to assure long-term stability. There was no word about the tweaks. The president was even more evasive in addressing the more urgent problem of controlling Medicare costs, only vowing to get the rising costs of health care under control. As for Simpson-Bowles, the commission that came up with a fair program of spending reductions, including to entitlements, and tax increases to reduce deficit spending, it is a wonder the president's nose did not grow when he suggested the administration is working to implement it. In one of the biggest mistakes of his term, the president walked away from his own commission's recommendations.
Yes, the debate made clear the fundamental differences between the two candidates, but anyone paying attention knew about that going in. As for providing voters with some essential details, the debate fell far short.