Barack Obama is where he is because he has earned a reputation for wielding a silver tongue. Mitt Romney is where he is because he has earned a reputation for brandishing a sharp pencil.
Neither of those people was on display during Wednesday's presidential debate. And we are all the poorer for it.
Whether it was because Obama was over-prepared, over-tired or has spent so long in the bubble of the White House, the fact is that he came across Wednesday night as halting, unfocused, at times maybe even grumpy.
Whether it was because Romney was desperate to make up the gaps in the polls, willing to say anything, or has simply become disengaged from the facts, the truth is that he peppered his Ronald-Reagan-on-adrenalin performance with enough misleading statements to fill five debates.
For a candidate who has developed a reputation for stiffness, Romney's performance was a stunner. He was engaged, assertive and glib, mixing humor with passion and a flow of ideas and arguments. Obama, on the other hand, was unable to make his usual superior command of the facts at all clear or compelling.
And that's too bad. Because Obama was right when he said that Romney's tax plan threatens to cost some $5 trillion, a horrible idea in times of deep deficits. Romney said he would balance those cuts by cutting back on tax deductions and credits. But, until he gets more specific, and makes a case that he will succeed in totally reforming the tax code when so many before him have failed, his claims that his plan would not balloon the deficit can't be taken seriously.
Romney's claim that he has something to replace the Affordable Care Act is far short of being credible. His description of the Dodd-Frank financial reforms as a blank check for "too-big-to-fail banks" is flawed. And his attack on Obama's plan to cut $716 billion from Medicare doesn't pass the smell test, in part because the plan put forward by his own running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, did exactly the same thing.
Romney's repeated reference to an "unelected panel" that would determine what health care people could have is inaccurate, one step removed from Sarah Palin's "death panels" lie that had so much currency four years ago. And his description of Obamacare as a "government takeover of health care" is so far off the beam that PolitiFact.org called it the 2010 Political Lie of the Year.
There are, still to come, two more debates, lots of speeches and enough political ads to drive us all mad. We can only hope that Romney will steer closer to the truth, and that Obama will be able to call him out if he doesn't.
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