Focusing on the Middle East, Mr. Romney accused the Obama administration of concealing for days the fact that terrorists were behind the attack in Benghazi, Libya, which killed US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Also, Mr. Obama has put “daylight” between the United States and Israel, Romney said, and failed to halt Iran’s march toward nuclear weapons capability.
Under Obama, the US has “led from behind,” Romney said. Citing the example of VMI grad George Marshall, the great World War II Army chief of staff and Truman-era secretary of State, Romney vowed that as president he would use US power to shape world events, instead of simply reacting to them.
“Unfortunately, this president’s policies have not been equal to our best examples of world leadership,” Romney said.
Romney supporters saw the speech as building on the success of his crisp performance in the presidential debate last week. He “looked the part of commander in chief,” wrote conservative Jennifer Rubin in her Right Turn blog at The Washington Post.
This is one of the political hurdles that a candidate must overcome to topple an incumbent chief executive, of course. If voters are leery about a candidate's ability to handle late-night phone calls on foreign crises, they may hesitate to displace a tested administration.
Romney tried to do this with a light hand. There were no accusations that Obama had “sympathized” with rioters in the Middle East – a charge the GOP nominee has made in the past.
Instead, his tone seemed to reflect a core strategy of the Romney approach: Voters who still like Obama must be persuaded that it’s still OK to vote against him.
Romney “replaced righteous anger with sober disappointment and sought to give persuadable voters permission to feel the same way about the president’s foreign policy failures,” wrote BuzzFeed political writer McKay Coppins.
But some critics said that the foreign-policy themes that Romney enunciated relied heavily on repeated yet vague assertions that he’ll be a better leader than Obama. Also, they said, his actual policies hew fairly closely to existing US positions.
As to US relations with Israel, it does seem clear that a Romney administration would take a different tack, in that Romney vows to align the US more closely with Israeli interests. “The world must never see any daylight between our two nations,” he said.
On Syria, however, Romney said he’d work with allies to make sure rebels who “share our values” get the arms they need. That’s pretty much what’s going on now, though Romney might urge the transfer of more powerful weapons.
In Afghanistan, Romney hinted that Obama had pulled out troops too fast, but added, ”I will pursue a real and successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014.”
That’s the current Afghanistan timetable.
As for Iran, Romney has said that it should not get nuclear weapons capability. The Obama administration has been vaguer about exactly what line Iran should not cross. But Romney did not rattle sabers here, saying only that he’d impose new sanctions on Iran and tighten ones already in place.
Those are the tools the current administration says it will rely on for the time being to try to curb Tehran.
It’s in the means where they should differ. “And – in op-ed after op-ed, in speech after speech – Romney either elides the means altogether, mentions means that the Obama administration is already using, or just says the word ‘resolve’ a lot,” Mr. Drezner writes. “That’s insufficient.”
In fact, Romney has changed positions on a number of foreign issues, Madeleine Albright, Clinton-era secretary of State, said in a conference call with reporters. He’s switched back and forth as to whether the US intervention in Libya is a good thing, for instance.
“When you get to the specifics, you kind of don’t get the sense that he knows exactly what tools to use and how to operate within an international setting and what the role of the United States is in the 21st century,” said Ms. Albright.
The audience, for one. (Particularly the members of the live audience in George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium, since they didn’t have to suffer from slow or frozen Internet connections due to servers overloaded by viewer demand.) Messrs. Stewart and O’Reilly delivered a pretty good clash of ideologies, in which each addressed the other’s points, spiced up with humor and leavened by the fact that the two men appear to be friends.
That’s more than you could say about last week’s presidential debate.
As for Saturday night, take the issue of Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comments about the percentage of Americans who consider themselves victims entitled to government support. O’Reilly defended Mr. Romney’s general point. The Fox host acknowledged that the Americans who belong to what he called the “entitlement society” add up to far less than 47 percent of the nation – but, he said, it’s a growing problem that’s driving big government and much of the deficit.
“About 20 percent of us are slackers, and it’s a growing industry,” O’Reilly said.
Stewart blew his top, or pretended to. He noted that the United States was founded by immigrants who came to a country already settled by natives and decided they wanted it for themselves.
“We are an entitlement nation,” Stewart said. “Have you ever seen 'Oprah’s Favorite Things' episode? We are a people that wants free things.”
The issue for 2012, Stewart said, was whether President Obama has fundamentally changed citizens’ relationship to the government in this regard. O’Reilly responded that Mr. Obama had, given the increase in food stamps and other social spending, including a doubling of government disability payments.
“The mind-set is, if I can gin the system, I’ll do it because it’s easy,” O’Reilly said.
Stewart said Obama hadn’t changed that relationship. The bad economy drove up food-stamp spending, he said. Then he pointed out that O’Reilly’s own father claimed disability, albeit from a private firm.
“If you take advantage of a tax break, you’re a smart businessman. If you take advantage of something you need to not be hungry, you’re a moocher,” Stewart said.
On the issue of the deficit, Stewart argued that Republicans are exaggerating the short-term threat to the US economy, without proposing any real solutions.
Of course, ending federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, as Romney proposed during last week’s debate, saves a pittance. That’s what Stewart pointed out. But O’Reilly got him in response, asserting that Obama’s proposal to increase taxes on wealthy individuals by itself doesn’t do much to close the deficit, either.
“It doesn’t matter what [President] Bush did. The job of the president now is to get the deficit under control, and you got to cut stuff,” O’Reilly said.
As for the funny bits, O’Reilly mostly served as the amused straight man to the professional comedian. Thus the 6-foot, 4-inch Fox News personality watched as the comedian, short enough to be called “Hobbit-like” by moderator E.D. Hill, rose on a motorized platform to surpass his opponent’s height.
“I can see how Obama did badly in the debate. The air is really rough up here,” Stewart said at one point.
Prodded by the moderator as to whether US politics should feature more cross-partisan dialogue, Stewart got up and sat in O’Reilly’s lap.
“What would you like for Christmas, little boy?” O’Reilly responded, before telling Stewart to vamoose.
(See, that’s extra-humorous because Stewart is Jewish, and they’d already argued as to whether there’s a war on Christmas in America.)
As to which participant may have bested the other, we’ll take the safe route and say they both won, particularly because both were getting paid, which is really the point, right?
And in that regard, O’Reilly may have won a little more. He’s got a new book out, “Killing Kennedy,” a narrative of the events surrounding JFK’s assassination. So the debate has given him a burst of publicity at a time that’s good for his pocketbook.
As O’Reilly said during the debate, “You gotta let the free market run away a little bit. You gotta unleash the machine.”
“Right,” riposted Stewart. “Because what could go wrong?”
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Washington’s red ink was a big topic in the presidential debate on Wednesday night. That’s unsurprising – it’s an important issue, and the federal government is spending a lot more than it's taking in. But President Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney kept throwing numbers at each other like they were playing arithmetical dodge ball. For those without accounting skills it was hard to keep up.
So as part of our effort to explain some of the discussion we’ll address this point: Mitt Romney said the deficit has doubled under President Obama. Is that right?
Well, let’s look at the numbers. When President Obama took office in 2009 the deficit was already running at close to a record-setting pace. At the end of that fiscal year, it was $1.4 trillion. That’s “trillion” with a “T”. Ouch.
Fiscal 2012 ended on Sept. 30. The final figures aren’t yet in, but at the moment the Congressional Budget Office projects the deficit will be ... (drum roll) $1.1 trillion. So smaller. Not doubled at all.
In 2010 and 2011 the deficit was a bit higher, at around $1.3 trillion each year. That’s still below the 2009 figure, certainly not double. Measured as a share of the Gross National Product, which is how economists prefer to do it, the deficit has declined during Obama’s term in office. We won’t give you the percentages because they’re just more numbers and we’re not economists ourselves.
So what did Romney say on Wednesday, exactly? He asserted this: “The president said he’d cut the deficit in half. Unfortunately, he doubled it. Trillion-dollar deficits for the last four years.”
As we’ve seen, the middle part of that isn’t true. The deficit hasn’t doubled. But the trillion-dollar-four-years part is true. So is the first part of Romney’s charge. During Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress on Feb. 24, 2009, the president pledged to halve the deficit during his first term. Looking at the above numbers you can see that he hasn’t.
It’s possible that on Wednesday night Romney misspoke or misunderstood something in his briefing book. His advisers may have wanted him to say that the US debt, not the deficit, had increased sharply during Obama’s term.
The deficit is the nation’s annual shortfall. The debt is the shortfalls of all years added together and rolled up in a big pile of red numbers that at this point is reaching toward the sky.
On George W. Bush’s last day in office the US public debt was $10.626 trillion. On Oct. 5, 2012 (you can see the debt to the penny at the Treasury’s Bureau of Public Debt website) the total debt outstanding was about $16.161 trillion.
So as you see, the debt has gone up a lot during Obama’s time in office. About 52 percent, if you run the numbers. That’s still not doubled, though.
Of course, in this instance the numbers are simply continuing an upwards trend that began under President Bush. The debt went up about $4.9 trillion during Bush’s time in office.
Obama has been quick to blame his predecessor (plus the bad economy) for much of the nation’s debt problem. During Wednesday’s debate he said Bush used credit to pay for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as well as the Medicare prescription drug program.
This analysis of the roots of the deficit problem is itself only partly true, as we said when we looked at it in depth in a previous post.
Just a month before the election, did the White House “cook the books” to get the unemployment rate down to 7.8 percent in September?
“Unbelievable jobs numbers..these Chicago guys will do anything..can’t debate so change numbers,” said the missive from his Twitter account after the latest jobs report came out Friday from the Labor Department.
Mr. Welch’s tweet has set off a firestorm of activity in the virtual realm. Conspiracy theorists jumped on board as if the Obama administration had hidden reports of UFOs landing in the Rose Garden.
And Rep. Allen West (R) of Florida, a favorite of the tea party, tweeted, “I agree with former GE CEO Jack Welch, Chicago style politics is at work here….”
Democrats quickly tweeted right back.
“love ya jack but you’ve lost your mind,” wrote Austan Goolsbee on Twitter.
Welch is best known for making GE into a corporate dynamo. When he retired, he also became known for collecting a pension that many thought was excessive. In addition to collecting $933 million, he got an annual pension of $10.5 million and a chauffeur and use of the GE corporate jet for life. As if that were not enough, GE also agreed to pay his dry cleaning bills.
In Welch’s case, Labor Secretary Solis appeared on CNBC to refute allegations that any massaging of the data had occurred.
“You know I am insulted when I hear that because we have a very professional civil service organization where you have top economists working" at the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), she said. “It is really ludicrous to hear that kind of statement.”
When it reports the unemployment data each month, the Labor Department looks at two different surveys. The first survey asks 141,000 businesses and government agencies if they have hired anyone in the past month. This is called the establishment survey, and it showed that only 114,000 people had been hired by businesses in September, compared with an average of about 140,000 per month so far this year.
At the same time, the BLS contracts out to the Department of Census to call 60,000 people every month to ask if their employment situation has changed. This household survey determines the unemployment rate.
Using the household survey, the BLS estimated that last month 873,000 people had found work. After estimating the number of people who got fired or laid off, the bureau, using that survey, said that the number of unemployed people dropped by approximately 456,000.
It is not unusual for the number to vary greatly month to month, notes economist Joel Naroff of Naroff Economic Advisers in Holland, Pa. For example, in April the BLS reported that 342,000 fewer people had found jobs and in May it reported that 642,000 had found work.
“The unemployment rate will probably go back to 7.9 percent or maybe 8 percent next month,” he says.
This is not the first time aspersions have been cast on the Bureau of Labor Statistics, according to Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank in Washington. In 1971, President Richard Nixon was angered when the BLS attributed a drop in the unemployment rate from 6.2 percent to 5.6 percent in a month to a statistical fluke, says the EPI website.
Timothy Noah, writing in Slate, published excerpts from White House tape recordings in which Nixon and an adviser, Charles Colson, decide that a Jewish cabal at BLS is trying to undermine the president's economic policy. “Well, listen, they are all Jews over there?” he asks Colson. Then, in an official act of anti-Semitism, Nixon tells Colson, “All right, I want a look at any sensitive areas around where Jews are involved, Bob. See, the Jews are all through the government, and we have got to get in those areas. We've got to get a man in charge who is not Jewish to control the Jewish … do you understand?”
In the wake of his widely panned debate performance, President Obama has taken to arguing that the man he faced onstage – the insistently moderate-sounding candidate who said he believes in regulation and won’t reduce taxes for the wealthy – was not the “real” Mitt Romney.
But in many ways, Wednesday’s debate has raised an equally uncomfortable question for Democrats: Was that the “real” Barack Obama?
Certainly, many supporters saw Mr. Obama's debate performance as an aberration. And perhaps it was just a bad night: He was out of practice for debates; he was tired. (Former Vice President Al Gore even speculated that the altitude got to him.)
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But it came on the heels of a convention speech that also struck many viewers on both sides of the aisle as strangely flat and pedestrian. And few would dispute that Obama's entire 2012 campaign has felt relatively small and tactical – and far less inspirational – compared with the race he ran in 2008.
Which has got some members of the chattering class wondering: What, exactly, happened to the candidate who just four years ago filled stadiums and moved an army of supporters with his soaring speeches and charisma?
Republicans have one answer: essentially, that the emperor has no clothes. Back in 2008, they argue, Obama’s supporters were simply projecting what they wanted in a candidate onto a man who was, in essence, nothing but a blank slate. Now they’re learning the truth. “Obama just isn't that good,” conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer writes. “Not without a teleprompter. He's not even that good at news conferences – a venue in which he's still in charge, choosing among questioners and controlling the timing of his own answers.”
Democrats have a different theory about what happened to Obama: the past four years. Presidents are never exactly the same when they run for reelection. And when they’ve weathered a first term as difficult as Obama’s – managing two wars, a recession, and a stagnant recovery – it inevitably takes a toll. It changes the man.
“Whoever Obama was when he was elected president has been seared away by two active wars, the more free-ranging fight against al-Qaeda, the worst economic crash since the Great Depression, and the endless grinding fights with Washington Republicans – and even, I am sure, activists in his own party,” wrote The Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta. “His supporters keep wanting Obama to be who he was in 2008. But that's not who he is anymore.”
Of course, the Obama who's been out on the campaign trail doesn’t always seem that different from the Obama of 2008. He still can give a rip-roaring speech and fire up crowds. And just in the past few days – perhaps jolted by the poor debate reviews – he seems to have harnessed more of the old energy and zeal.
More to the point, his 2012 campaign was never going to be a replica of 2008. The “change” slogan works well for challengers, but incumbents, obviously, have to argue for continuity. In his case, Obama’s “continuity” argument has been particularly complicated and weighed down by the slow-growing economy.
So the president has had to strike a tricky balance between campaigning with spirit and gusto and acknowledging the sober realities that challenge many Americans. More than anything, it may be that kind of split-personality messaging that has led to the split-personality candidate we’ve seen throughout this campaign cycle.
If he wants to win, however, at this point he clearly has to lose the “grim Obama” who showed up onstage at the debate. As every political consultant will tell you, even in hard times, Americans want to see a candidate who’s optimistic, who has a spring in his step. On Wednesday, that was Mr. Romney. Obama had better hope he can seize that mantle back.
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Mitt Romney is now repudiating his famous “47 percent” remarks. In an interview Thursday night on Fox News, the GOP presidential nominee told host Sean Hannity that those words were “just completely wrong.”
That’s the clearest mea culpa Mr. Romney’s made since Mother Jones published video of him telling donors at a Florida fundraiser that 47 percent of Americans believe they’re “victims” entitled to government aid. This 47 percent doesn’t pay income taxes, Romney added, and will never vote for him or take personal responsibility for their lives, so it’s not his job to care about them.
Previously, Romney said that he stood behind the remarks in general, but that they were “inelegantly stated.”
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“Well, clearly in a campaign, with hundreds if not thousands of speeches and question-and-answer sessions, now and then you’re going to say something that doesn’t come out right,” Romney told Mr. Hannity on Thursday. “In this case, I said something that’s just completely wrong.”
Why now? If he was going to apologize, why didn’t Romney do it the day the video was released, defusing its impact?
Now’s a better time, for one thing. In the wake of his strong debate performance Wednesday night, this reversal of course appears more prudent, even magnanimous. Prior to this, the Romney camp appeared to believe that saying “sorry” about anything was a sign of weakness, the kind of thing done by losing nominees like Sen. John McCain (R). Now, basking in good reviews from conservatives and the mainstream media alike, the former Massachusetts governor is apologizing from a stronger position.
Plus, the “47 percent” issue has damaged his campaign. As we’ve long noted, individual gaffes, misstatements, instances of umbrage, and so forth don’t generally correlate with movements in the polls. But it seems possible that this did. There’s evidence that President Obama gained a percentage point or more in the rolling averages of major polls following the Mother Jones video disclosure.
That may not seem huge, but considering the closeness of the race, one percentage point either way could be huge in November.
Also, Romney said the remarks were “completely wrong” because they are. No, we’re not going to engage in an argument about dependency and government programs. His words were just factually inaccurate. It’s true that 47 percent of Americans don’t pay income taxes, but it’s not true that 47 percent receive government aid, even if Social Security and Medicare recipients are included in the figure.
Plus, many people within that 47 percent do vote Republican. Southern white voters are reliably GOP, even if they’re on unemployment, for instance. Elderly Republicans collect Social Security checks just as elderly Democrats do.
The more difficult political question may be whether the “47 percent” stuff will continue to haunt Romney’s campaign, despite his apology. It’s possible that swing voters impressed by his debate performance will find his mea culpa reassuring. But it’s also certain that Mr. Obama will still put up ads running the fundraiser video, with little extra commentary except subtitles. Voters predisposed to see Romney as someone who favors the rich may find confirmation in those grainy clips.
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In terms of numerical assertions, Wednesday’s presidential debate at times seemed like a playground fight instead of a substantive encounter. President Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney threw figures at each other as if they were snowballs.
“You’ve got a $5 trillion tax cut!”
“Do not! You’re the one with a $716 billion Medicare cut!”
And so on. Eventually the school bell rang and they had to go in. Or moderator Jim Lehrer said it was over and they shook hands. One or the other.
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That can’t be edifying for viewers who don’t keep Congressional Budget Office reports on their bedside tables. So we’ll try to explain in a basic way the facts as we understand them behind some of the candidates' primary substantive disagreements.
We’ll start with the $5 trillion tax cut mystery. At the beginning of the debate, Mr. Obama charged that Mr. Romney’s economic plan calls for a tax reduction of that dollar figure, and that one of the “central questions of the campaign” is how the former Massachusetts governor will pull that off without shifting more of the US tax burden onto the middle class.
Romney said flatly “I don’t have a $5 trillion tax cut.” He said the US should provide tax relief to the middle class, without reducing the share of taxes paid by high-income people.
What’s the story here?
It is true that a central facet of Mitt Romney’s economic plan is a 20 percent across-the-board reduction in marginal tax rates, plus elimination of the estate tax and the alternative minimum tax (AMT). Do the math on how much money the federal government would forgo as a result of this, and it’s about $456 billion a year. Over 10 years, that rounds up to $5 trillion. That's the calculus behind the "$5 trillion tax cut" figure that Obama cites.
However, that’s only part of the tax plan. Romney has said he would make his overall tax changes revenue-neutral. He’d hack out deductions, exemptions, and other exclusions to broaden the tax base, for one thing. For another, he says that lowering marginal rates would increase economic activity, and hence tax revenue. These changes would counterbalance any revenue lost from rate reductions, according to Romney.
Those are ambitious goals, and Romney hasn’t provided more than hints about which deductions and exemptions he’d try to get rid of. Without such specifics to go on, the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center ran the numbers on Romney’s plan, and decided they just don’t add up. A revenue-neutral tax reform that includes 20 percent marginal cuts, no estate tax or AMT, gets rid of a substantial portion of deductions, and keeps existing tax breaks for investments (as Romney has said he would) ends up shifting about $86 billion in annual tax costs onto the middle class, it reported.
No surprise, the Romney camp has hotly contested the results of this study, saying it’s flawed. Romney has started to speculate on possible additional tax details, such as a cap on the deductions that wealthy taxpayers can claim. Faced with a tax plan that shifted the burden to the middle class, Romney could change course – reducing the size of the marginal reductions, say.
But as long as the Romney campaign doesn’t provide concrete tax specifics, the Obama camp will be happy to provide them for him, framing the plan in the worst possible light. For a voter, the most important question may not be whether this is fair. It might be this: Given the circumstances described, what do they think President Romney would actually do if he had to juggle things to make his numbers work?
Going into Wednesday’s debate, a number of commentators jokingly wondered “which Mitt Romney would show up.” A jab on Twitter by comedian Conan O’Brien (which was retweeted more than 8,000 times) was typical: "Romney prepped for tonight’s debate by debating with a man whose views differ radically from his own: himself from 8 years ago."
So in a way, the biggest shock was how utterly nonplussed President Obama seemed when he suddenly found himself standing onstage with … Mitt the Moderate.
Maybe it’s because that version of Mr. Romney had been missing for so long that the president was simply lulled into believing he might never return.
Really, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. It’s standard practice: Presidential candidates are forced to run to the right (or left) during the primary season – but as soon as they’ve secured the nomination, they begin pivoting back to the center.
But all summer long, the anticipated Romney pivot never seemed to happen. If anything, Romney seemed to be speaking more and more to the right wing – leading many to assume that his advisers were viewing this as a base election, trying to maximize turnout among partisans rather than appeal to independents.
So much for that theory. Wednesday night, on issue after issue, Romney hewed determinedly to the center, softening his positions on everything from taxes to regulation, often blurring distinctions between himself and Mr. Obama.
His tax plan? Romney insisted repeatedly that he would not give a net tax break to upper-income Americans, and that his tax plan would not add to the US deficit. “I don't have a $5 trillion tax cut. I don't have a tax cut of a scale that you're talking about,” he said. “My view is that we ought to provide tax relief to people in the middle class. But I'm not going to reduce the share of taxes paid by high-income people.”
Tax breaks for oil companies like ExxonMobil? They’re “on the table.”
Medicare? He presented himself as the program's real protector: “I want to take that $716 billion you've cut and put it back into Medicare.”
Regulation of business? “Regulation is essential. You can't have a free market work if you don't have regulation.” In fact, the biggest problem with Dodd-Frank, according to Romney, was that it designated “five banks as too big to fail and [gave] them a blank check.”
Smartly, Romney also made Obama seem like the partisan one, attacking him for pushing through health-care reform “entirely on a partisan basis,” without a single Republican vote. He also didn’t run away from his health-care plan in Massachusetts at all.
It was like watching the Romney from 1994, back when he was running against Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy – except in this debate, probably fortunately for Romney, cultural issues never came up at all, so he wasn't forced to try to moderate any of those positions.
Of course, the question now is whether this one debate performance will be enough to reestablish Moderate Mitt as the image voters hold of Romney – or whether the more conservative candidate they saw for much of the campaign (which was reinforced by an unrelenting slew of Obama attack ads) is already set in stone?
You can bet that the Obama campaign will be working overtime in coming days to revive Conservative Mitt (and, maybe even more deadly, Phony Mitt). But many undecided voters may be willing to see Romney in a whole new light. After all, these days, reinventing yourself is the American Way. For voters who have been unhappy with Obama’s performance – but also put off by what they had seen up to now of Romney – what they saw onstage Wednesday night may well have been reassuring. At least one participant in CNN's focus group said afterward that she felt "relieved." For Obama, the return of Moderate Mitt could be a big problem.
Is Joe Biden the GOP’s new secret weapon?
That’s what the Mitt Romney presidential campaign appears to believe. It’s begun to publicize VP Biden’s twisted tongue moment of Tuesday, in which he said “the middle class ... has been buried the last four years,” in an attempt to turn the sitting Veep’s own words against his boss.
The Romney camp already has an ad up in which Biden is front and center. Titled “Couldn’t Say It Better,” it starts with about 15 seconds of clips of Romney and his VP candidate Rep. Paul Ryan saying that the “Obama economy” has crushed the middle class, workers are suffering, and so forth.
Then it cuts to Biden speaking Tuesday at a campaign appearance in Charlotte, N.C. “The middle class ... has been buried” he shouts to the crowd. Then comes a white screen, and a simple phrase, “We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.”
Top Romney surrogate Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was even more cutting at an appearance Wednesday in Colorado. He repeated Biden’s statement to a roomful of Republicans, then said, “He’s the best thing we’ve got going, guys. Because in a moment of clarity, in a brief moment of clarity, he told us what we already knew.”
Will this work? Well, Biden’s sentence certainly fits into the Romney campaign’s original strategy for the race. That was to hammer home the jobless numbers and tie them to President Obama’s stewardship of the economy.
There’s a presidential candidate debate Wednesday night in Denver – just in case you hadn’t heard – and it’s supposed to focus on economic issues. We’re pretty sure that some variation of “middle class” and “buried” will work its way into a pre-planned Romney zinger.
The problem for Romney is that his economic message alone hasn’t been carrying him toward victory. Lagging a few stubborn percentage points behind Obama in the polls, the former Massachusetts governor has had to broaden his approach, hitting the administration on its policies toward the Middle East and other foreign issues as he attempts to portray himself as a more forceful choice for the Oval Office.
Plus, voters in general don’t necessarily see the wealthy Romney as the best candidate to look out for the middle class’s interests. In a recent Washington Post/ABC News survey 66 percent of respondents said that Obama does more to favor the middle class than the wealthy. Only 35 percent made the same judgment about Romney.
Finally, it’s unlikely you’ll see the fuller context of the Biden “buried” quote in a GOP ad anytime soon. At the time he spoke those words, he was working up a dudgeon about Romney’s tax proposals, which the Obama campaign maintains inevitably would lead to a higher taxes for those in the middle.
“This is deadly earnest,” Biden told the North Carolina crowed. “How they can justify, how they can justify raising taxes on the middle class that has been buried the last four years? How in the Lord’s name can they justify raising their taxes? We’ve seen this movie before....”
Yes, this charge is itself based on a fairly tenuous analysis of Romney’s plans. But the GOP still has to shear off most of what Biden said to make his statement something they can use in their ads.
They're hoping for some political theater, hopefully some new insight into the candidates' views and policies and character, and perhaps a gaffe or game-changing moment.
But – while there may be some freewheeling conversation between Messrs. Obama and Romney – the debate itself is tightly scripted, with fairly strict rules.
Here's what you can expect:
How many questions will there be, and who chooses them?
In this first, 1-1/2-hour debate, there will be just six questions, all focused on domestic issues.
Moderator Jim Lehrer, of PBS Newshour, has already outlined what their basic thrust will be: three questions on the economy, one on health care, one on governing, and one on the role of government. Mr. Lehrer chooses the questions.
This is a change from past years, in which debates have typically had more questions and shorter discussion times. Lehrer, in part, advocated for the new format, and pushed to reduce the number of questions from nine to six, in the hopes that it would encourage more of a television talk-show approach, in which the candidates engage in discussion rather than just deliver talking points.
What are the rules of the debate?
Each question will have a 15-minute period devoted to it. After Lehrer asks the question, each candidate will get two minutes to respond. After that initial response, Lehrer can ask follow-up questions to provoke discussion between the two. The candidates will also have two minutes for closing statements.
The candidates cannot ask each other questions.
What about the rest of the debates?
In between, the debate commission will shake things up with a town-hall style debate on Oct. 16. In that debate, undecided voters selected by Gallup will ask the questions. Candidates will each get two minutes to respond, along with an additional minute for the moderator (CNN correspondent Candy Crowley) to facilitate a discussion.
The vice presidential debate on Oct. 11 will be more similar to the first and last debates, but with nine 10-minute segments that focus on both domestic and foreign policy. ABC correspondent Martha Raddatz is moderating.
How have the candidates been preparing?
Romney has been practicing in Massachusetts with Ohio Sen. Rob Portman as the Obama stand-in. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, meanwhile, has been acting as Romney in Obama's debate-prep sessions in Nevada.