By WSJ, Editorial Board
Liberals and the media are attempting to explain President Obama’s anemic debate performance by claiming that he was merely “rusty” and out of practice, or he doesn’t watch enough MSNBC, or he was consumed by the burdens of the office. Maybe it was all those security briefings he’s not attending between the fundraisers and political rallies.
This may be comforting to his supporters, but our reading is that something far different was on display Wednesday night. For the first time, the carefully crafted campaign illusions that the President has constructed were exposed. Mitt Romney had the audacity to describe Mr. Obama’s record and his own agenda in ways that the American public has rarely heard. The Obama Matrix collapsed into bits on the Denver stage.
The most instructive exchange came early, after Mr. Obama had already denounced Mr. Romney’s “central economic plan” for the third time. He repeated his lines from the stump about Mr. Romney’s $5 trillion tax cut for millionaires and billionaires that “dumps those costs on middle-class Americans” and raises their taxes by $2,000.
Mr. Romney has no such plan. Mr. Obama simply made it up, with an assist from one of his former economists and others at a liberal Washington think tank. Mr. Romney said as much categorically. He then added that Mr. Obama would continue to make the accusation, on the theory that incantation could make it true, “but that is not the case, all right?” and “I will not, under any circumstances, raise taxes on middle-income families.”
Mr. Obama was nonplused, perhaps because he had come to believe what he was saying in the bubble of his campaign rallies and unquestioned by the media. The best reply he could offer was that, “Well, for 18 months he’s been running on this tax plan. And now, five weeks before the election, he’s saying that his big, bold idea is ‘never mind.'” But for 18 months it has been Mr. Obama who has campaigned against a mirage of his own imagining. No wonder he was stumped.
Editorial board member Joe Rago on how Mitt Romney handled health care in last night’s debate. Photo: Getty Images
Then there was health care, when Mr. Obama claimed the Romney-Ryan Medicare reforms would force seniors to pay $6,000 a year and leave “folks like my grandmother at the mercy of the private insurance system.”
But Mr. Romney didn’t sound like a wild-eyed radical as he patiently described his own “premium support” ideas, which would simply require traditional Medicare to compete with the private market and let seniors “make their own choice.” If government is better, he added, that’s fine, but “my experience is the private sector typically is able to provide a better product at a lower cost.”
The former Governor sounded reasonable and pragmatic, and some pundits are now claiming that he changed his platform or that he is trying to dump GOP “extremist” ballast. He didn’t and he doesn’t have any. He described his center-right reforms truthfully. The Obama cheerleaders were shocked that Mr. Romney’s remarks didn’t repeat the Obama-created caricature that they’ve spent months broadcasting as if it were gospel.
The other illusion that exploded Wednesday is the one Mr. Obama tells about his own Presidency. He always mentions the recession he inherited and the many great feats he will perform in his second term. What he rarely mentions are the last four years.
Mr. Romney had the gall to shine a light on those years, talking in great detail about the dismal results of what he called “trickle-down government” in practice: the 23 million people who can’t find work or have dropped out of the labor force, 43 straight months of unemployment above 8%. The most rapid increase in debt of any President ever. That this year the economy grew slower than last year, and 2011 grew slower than the one before.
American Spectator senior editor John Fund on how the Obama campaign is responding to last night’s debate and what to expect from the President in the next one. Photo: Getty Images
The evidence of Mr. Obama’s time in power includes his 2008 vow to cut the deficit in half. Instead he doubled it in 2009 and then presided over three more $1 trillion-plus reprises. He said he’d cut health costs by $2,500 per family, yet average employee-sponsored family premiums have climbed $1,975 since ObamaCare passed.
These are facts. If they are news to many Americans, it is because Mr. Obama has campaigned as if this were still 2008 and “hope and change” were just an election away. The same press corps that demands “specifics” from Mr. Romney never asks Mr. Obama for anything—never mind parsing the numbers on such jerry-rigged claims that he’ll reduce the deficit by “$4 trillion.”
Mr. Romney won the debate because he pointed out that Mr. Obama is running on the same ideas he ran on four years ago and passed into law, and that the results in the first term are the best prediction of what’s in store in the next four.
If the Obama Matrix is starting to fall away, one thing to understand is that the President is really good at doubling down. He rammed through ObamaCare despite losing his 2008 liberal supermajority, and he refused to change his government-driven agenda despite historic Congressional losses in 2010.
The signs on Thursday, a day after the debate, were that Team Obama will try to rebound by reasserting its political illusions, though at higher decibels and with harsher TV ads. Mr. Romney had better be prepared, but there is a danger to this strategy for Mr. Obama too. By refusing to address the economy as it is, and debate Mr. Romney’s agenda as it is, he looks increasingly like a President detached from the economic pain that millions of Americans are feeling.
A version of this article appeared October 5, 2012, on page A12 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Obama Matrix.