One particular exchange between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney during their first debate this week highlighted how quickly these made-for-television performances slip into rhetoric without substance.
When asked how they would deal with the national debt, Romney said the president should have grabbed the Simpson-Bowles plan, a commission formed in 2010 that made recommendations to achieve long-term fiscal sustainability.
But when asked if he would have adopted Simpson-Bowles, an energized Romney said he would not. “I have my own plan,” he said, and “It’s not Simpson-Bowles.”
That’s because the Simpson-Bowles debt-reduction commission concluded that the pathway to fiscal health required a balanced approach of spending cuts and tax increases. Romney has been clear about opposing any revenue increases whatsoever.
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Obama was equally elusive on the subject. The president professed to have embraced Simpson-Bowles, saying his administration was making some adjustments to the commission’s recommendations and putting it before Congress right now.
But the commission wound up its work almost two years ago, so the president’s claims to be embracing Simpson-Bowles aren’t persuasive.
Romney was setting a trap, and Obama almost took the bait. Many economic experts have criticized the recommendations of Simpson-Bowles for one reason or another, and primarily for its focus on cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
The problem with these national debates is that candidates merely freshen up their campaign talking points for the television audience, meanwhile attempting to obfuscate as much as possible. They both did that part well.
Presidential debates do make entertaining political theater, even though research shows they almost never affect the outcome of the election. Fortunately, the candidates have several more weeks – and two more televised debates – to provide voters with specifics.