Finally, for the first time in this election year, Barack Obama couldn’t hide from the economy and the recession his policies have painfully prolonged.
The economic elephant in the presidential debate at the University of Denver couldn’t be ignored any longer, as Mr. Obama has done for most of the year. It was center stage because Mitt Romney put it there.
Mr. Obama’s campaign of distraction and irrelevance tried to make the election about anything except the painful jobless rate and chronically feeble economy that has crippled family finances and destroyed dreams of a better life for tens of millions of Americans. But this time, Mr. Obama was forced to confront the ugly reality across the country. Mr. Romney didn’t mince words: “Under the president’s policies, middle-income Americans have been buried,” he said, borrowing a line from none other than Vice President Joseph R. Biden, who this week said that “the middle class has been buried” during the past four years.
“They’re just being crushed. Middle-income Americans have seen their income come down by $4,300. This is a tax in and of itself. I’ll call it the economy tax. It’s been crushing,” Mr. Romney said.
For the first time in this election campaign, the nation had a chance to compare the former governor with Mr. Obama on the pivotal economic issues that are going to decide who will be the next president of the United States. It wasn’t even a close match.
Mr. Romney was at the top of his game, rattling off statistics about the bleak economy, detailing his five-step plan to get the once great American jobs machine running again, and rebutting Mr. Obama’s litany of patently false charges about his agenda for change.
On Mr. Obama’s repeated charge that Romney has a $5 trillion plan that would cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans and raise them for the middle class: Mr. Romney said he had no such plan, and, indeed, he does not. Mr. Obama could not point to a plan that would do that.
On Mr. Obama’s oft-repeated charge that Mr. Romney’s tax reform plan doesn’t add up and would worsen the budget deficit: Mr. Romney said he would overhaul the tax code by lowering the rates, and broaden the tax base by ending corporate welfare loopholes, special-interest exemptions and other deductions, thus making the tax cuts revenue-neutral.
To those who say this can’t be done, Ronald Reagan did it with the help of two Democratic leaders — Richard Gephardt and Bill Bradley — in his 1986 reforms that brought the top income tax rate down to 28 percent.
On Mr. Obama’s plan to raise taxes on people who earn more than $200,000 a year, Mr. Romney shot it down by saying it would further weaken an economy that is barely growing: “The problem with raising taxes is that it slows down the rate of [economic] growth. And you could never quite get the job done. I want to lower spending and encourage economic growth at the same time.”
On Mr. Obama’s charge that his challenger would cut education spending and undermine America’s ability to compete in the global economy: As Massachusetts governor, Mr. Romney presided over a state whose schools were ranked No. 1 in the country.
On Mr. Romney’s energy independence plan, Mr. Obama said his opponent would give tax breaks to the oil industry. Mr. Romney struck back by reminding the president that he had plowed more than $90 billion into corporations for green-energy projects, nearly a dozen of which went bankrupt — leaving taxpayers holding the bag.
Perhaps Mr. Romney’s strongest offensive was aimed at Mr. Obama’s plan to raise the top income tax rate to more than 40 percent. Thousands of small businesses that file tax returns as individuals would be hurt by this tax, which the former governor said would force them to cut up to 700,000 jobs. That surely struck a chord with small-business owners, who are the largest job creators in our economy, not to mention millions of their employees.
When Mr. Romney attacked Obamacare, which he said he would repeal, Mr. Obama weakly pointed out that it had been based on his plan in Massachusetts. But Mr. Romney replied that “we didn’t raise taxes … We didn’t cut Medicare … So for those reasons, for the tax, for Medicare, for this board, and for people losing their insurance, this is why the American people don’t want … Obamacare.”
Mr. Obama was meekly forced to acknowledge that “over the last two years, health care premiums have gone up.”
Mr. Romney also used the health care issue to promote his ability to reach across the aisle to get things done, pointing out that Mr. Obama failed to do that with Congress. No Republican voted for Obamacare. “I think something this big, this important has to be done on a bipartisan basis. And we have to have a president who can reach across the aisle,” he said in his strongest bid yet to reach out to independent and swing voters who are fed up with a dysfunctional Congress that can’t seem to pass anything to get the country back on the right track.
For 90 riveting minutes on nationwide television, seen by an estimated 60 million Americans, the president couldn’t make this election about abortion, Mr. Romney’s bank accounts or how much he pays in taxes — issues that have nothing to do with the problems facing our country and its economic future.
Instead, the debate was focused on the issue that Mr. Obama dreads most: a bed-ridden economy that has grown increasingly weaker under his inept, anti-investment, anti-growth, anti-job policies.
“The American people saw the difference between a teacher and student,” said former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.
Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and former chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.
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