Credit President Barack Obama's aides with discernment. Even before the first presidential debate was over, they knew they needed to come up with an excuse, and fast. They settled on one that they haven't stopped repeating: Mitt Romney lied his way to victory.
The president would have rebutted Romney's gross deceptions, except he was too focused on answering questions about the country's future and too taken aback by Romney's brazenness to answer the former governor in real time. Although once he had a day or two and his witty rejoinders were cued up in a teleprompter, he was absolute hell on Romney.
The case that Romney lied so brazenly that it undid the president who prides himself on his rhetorical genius rests, first, on the idea that the Republican misrepresented his own tax-reform plan. The president said that Romney proposes to cut taxes by $5 trillion over 10 years. Romney denied it. The president's team responded, with its customary civility and nuance: "Liar!"
But this isn't even a close call. Romney wants to cut income-tax rates 20 percent across the board and make up the revenue by closing loopholes and deductions. This isn't a tax cut; it's a wash. It's been Romney's plan ever since he proposed it during the Republican primaries. It's such a simple concept that only willful obtuseness keeps the president or his team from understanding it.
If Romney proposed a 1 percent across-the-board cut on rates and the elimination of all loopholes and deductions, surely President Obama would accuse him of wanting to raise taxes, not cut them, because people would be paying more in taxes despite lower rates. In fact, this is the approach of the president's own Simpson-Bowles debt commission, with which he should have some passing familiarity. The commission suggested lower rates and fewer deductions such that the federal government would garner more revenue. This isn't a tax cut, either.
It is true that Romney hasn't specified which deductions he'd cut, leaving that for a future negotiation with Congress. The Obama team takes this as license to accuse Romney of proposing to raise taxes on the middle class, a pure fabrication. When Obama made this charge in Denver, Romney proved that it is possible to reply to falsehoods one-on-one during a live debate. Romney firmly said he wouldn't raise taxes on the middle class and patiently explained why not.
Romney's other whopping deception allegedly was his contention that his health care plan covers people with pre-existing conditions. On this, too, he was on solid ground. To simplify, he wants to extend the current legal protection that exists in the employer-based insurance market to the individual market, and make it easier for people to buy insurance in that individual market. Again, this is nothing new, but has been an element in his health care policy from the beginning.
When Obama aides say that the real Romney didn't show up in Denver, what they really mean is that he failed to live down to their rank caricature of him. The deception, though, isn't the flesh-and-blood Romney, but the one-dimensional version broadcast far and wide by the Obama campaign.
As he showed during an hour and a half of high-pressure television, Romney is a capable and intelligent man who is ready to be president and has a substantial reform agenda. The Obama campaign's response to his debate victory basically was, "Don't believe your lying eyes believe our super PAC ads."
Democrats have convinced themselves that all the president needs to do to come roaring back in the next debate is rebut Romney's dishonesties, which will expose his indefensible agenda and shallow reinvention. The president's team evidently underestimated Romney once already. If it believes this "lying liar" interpretation of the debate rather than pushing it in the media for lack of anything else to say it will underestimate him yet again.
Romney bested President Obama on the merits in Denver. Anyone insisting otherwise simply can't handle the truth.