What did we learn from Obama and Romney in the presidential debate? Not much

The presidential debate showed almost nothing new about how either Romney or Obama would govern over the next four years, Gleckman writes.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney talk at the end of the first presidential debate in Denver, Wednesday. Both candidates recycled old lines and presented little new information, Gleckman writes.

The breathlessly-hyped debate between President Obama and Governor Romney left me with an empty feeling. There were many words–oh, there were words– but even the most casual observer of the campaign has heard most of them before.

Yet when it comes to economic policy,  I learned almost nothing new about how either Romney or Obama would govern over the next four years. The president broke no new ground at all. The governor had a few new things to say, but in a way that tells us less, not more, about his agenda.

There were lots of recycled charges: Obama again insisting that the average middle-class family “would pay” $2,000 more under Romney’s tax plan as if that were his proposal. Romney blaming Obama for last year’s increases in private insurance premiums.  And there was plenty of wonky wandering into the weeds of legislation.

Btw, do either of these guys think the average voter has any idea what a Dodd-Frank is?

But for all that, neither candidate told us anything we did not already know about what he’d do as president over the next four years.  As far as I could tell, Obama did not advance the ball on a single proposal.  He said nothing that was not in his convention acceptance speech a month ago.

By contrast, Romney did say some new things. But they served to further obfuscate, rather than clarify, his real agenda.

For example, earlier this week, Romney floated the idea of capping tax deductions at $17,000 as a way to help pay for his promised 20 percent across-the-board rate cut and his proposed repeal of the estate tax and the Alternative Minimum Tax.

That was interesting, and more specific than he has been. But no sooner had the Tax Policy Center and others tried to figure out what it might mean, Romney changed up. In the debate, he mused about capping deductions, not at $17,000, but at $25,000 or $50,000. This is no trivial difference.

A moment later he said he might not do this at all but, rather, target specific deductions. So what is Romney’s tax plan? We still have no idea.

Similarly, the governor repeated his vow that his tax rate cuts would not add to the deficit. And he said high-income households would pay the same share of taxes as they do today. And middle-income people would pay less.

So, how will he finance the rate cuts? The poor could pay more, I suppose, though that’s unlikely. The only other solution: The tax cuts would have to pay for themselves by generating a huge increase in economic growth. But these big supply-side effects are implausible at best.

On the spending side, Romney only added to his list of programs that would be exempt from budget cuts. Not only would defense spending be saved, and not only would Medicare cuts in the Affordable Care Act be reversed, but tonight Romney told us he would not cut spending for education.

For specific programs on Romney’s chopping block, we remain left with only public broadcasting (Big Bird burgers, anyone) and the 2010 health law (which the Congressional Budget Office says would actually reduce the deficit, thanks in part to its tax hikes)

So how would Romney cut the deficit he says would crush future generations? I still have no idea. How would he pay for his tax cuts? I know less now than I did before the debate.

Policy wonks have been arguing for a substantive debate. Well, they got wonky details, all right. What they did not get was much useful information about how either Romney or Obama would govern. More importantly, real people learned little about what either man would do to fix the still-troubled economy.

Lots of words, to be sure. But precious little new information.

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