KNIGHT: Obama’s debate run-in with inconvenient truths

Performance ruined by unwelcome facts

I didn’t want to write about the first presidential debate, which has been sliced and diced by many.

I’d rather write about “Teddy” finally winning the Presidents Race on the last day of the Nationals’ championship baseball season. But the debate is important to all but the sports-addled, and we did learn a couple of things:

If your opponent has more compelling facts, throw bricks, crack jokes, do anything but get into the weeds; they’ll reach up and choke you. Also, Barack Obama has an even thinner skin after being president for four years, and doesn’t fake humility well. However, Mr. Obama’s biggest problem was that the facts were against him, and Mitt Romney made sure we knew them.

Incontrovertible facts are powerful. A few years ago, at Cornell University, I debated a left-wing activist on the topic of marriage. My position was that marriage is universally the union of male and female and is irreplaceable not only for children and families but healthy communities and nations. It’s hard to argue with those facts.

Midway through the debate, my opponent had a meltdown. She suddenly began denouncing the Iraq War and George W. Bush and wound up yelling, only to be steered gently back to the debate topic by the moderator.

At a later reception, she said to me that she didn’t know what had happened, and wondered why “we were yelling at each other.” I had not raised my voice. I had not been angry in the least. What had happened was that she had become frustrated by some incontrovertible facts and was trying to defend the indefensible.

In the first presidential debate last Wednesday, President Obama did not have a meltdown. He didn’t come close. But he did look irritated, outgunned, puzzled and even angry. Who wouldn’t, if you had to defend the indefensible — the Obama record?

Commentators universally awarded the debate to Mitt Romney, with liberal pundits chalking it up to style and lack of energy, as if Mr. Obama would have done OK if he had just eaten his Wheaties that morning.

The problem was not style or energy, though Mr. Romney had far more of both. It was the glaringly vulnerable Obama policies that Mr. Romney systematically exposed. How do you defend explosive government spending that added nearly $6 trillion to the national debt, a real unemployment rate in double digits, a torrent of federal regulations that kill jobs, and the doubling in price of gasoline to nearly $4 a gallon nationally and nearly $5 a gallon in California while you’re blocking a Canadian pipeline and wrecking the fossil fuels industry? How about snatching $716 billion from the Medicare program? How do you make that all look good to the American people?

Mr. Romney looked sharp and stayed on message. He had a quiver full of arrows. When he wasn’t trying to appeal to moderates by, among other things, embracing a major federal role for education, more than a few of his arrows found the bulls-eye.

When Mr. Obama tried to vilify oil companies, citing “$4 billion a year in corporate welfare,” Mr. Romney corrected that to $2.8 billion a year and said that by contrast, Mr. Obama had thrown “$90 billion in breaks to the green energy world” or “50 years’ worth of what oil and gas receives.” Several of these favored companies went bankrupt, he reminded Mr. Obama, most prominently “Solyndra and Fisker and Tester and Ener1.” Then the zinger: “I mean, I had a friend who said you don’t just pick the winners and losers, you pick the losers, all right?”

Talk about inconvenient truths.

In the last question, which probably should have been first, moderator Jim Lehrer asked both men to summarize in two minutes the purpose of the federal government. Mr. Obama started strongly, saying that “the first role of the federal government is to keep the American people safe.” Then he went off, citing Abraham Lincoln’s federally funded projects and boilerplate liberal rhetoric about spending more on education. He threw yet another bone to unions by pledging to hire 100,000 more math and science teachers. It was quid pro quo Chicago politics.

Mr. Romney quickly trumped him by noting that Massachusetts schools are ranked No. 1, and then turned to the federal government’s purpose. Wisely, he invoked the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — the nation’s owner’s manual:

“The role of government is to promote and protect the principles of those documents,” Mr. Romney said. “First — life and liberty. We have a responsibility to protect the lives and liberties of our people, and that means a military second to none. Second we are endowed by our Creator with our rights, I believe we must maintain our commitment to religious tolerance and freedom in this country.”

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