Last night's first debate between President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney may have disappointed the Washington chattering classes, as it was absent of a knockout punch by the incumbent or any well scripted zingers by the challenger. But one thing was abundantly clear: Romney's penchant for endless reinvention and flip-flopping, along with his lack of a political core, has not changed.
The surprise that left many diehard Democrats and liberals scratching their heads was Obama's AWOL approach to Romney's most obvious liability: namely, the leaked tape of Mitt deriding 47 percent of Americans – claiming that his job is "to not worry about those people," because he could never "convince them to take personal responsibility or care for their lives." (Needless to say Romney's comments referred directly to veterans, senior citizens and much of his own Republican base: poor and working-class Whites.) The president also failed to mention Romney's refusal to release multiple years of tax returns, an issue that fueled debate for months over the candidate's foreign investments in the Cayman Islands and Switzerland, and whether Romney surreptitwiously avoided paying taxes to the American government he now wishes to lead.
Yes, on both these critical points President Obama was mute.
But what critics may describe as the incumbent being 'off his game' may actually reveal a brilliant campaign strategy. The recent Drudge Report that sought to characterize (or caricature) the president as an 'angry Black man' is proof the GOP is still committed to Southern strategy style politics. Had Obama seemed angry or reactionary he would have played to the narrative into which so many Republican operatives wish to frame him. Instead Obama talked policy— forcing Romney to answer to a proposed $5 trillion dollar tax cut which largely benefits high income earners, and an additional $2 trillion in defense spending— which would decimate the national deficit and increase the tax burden on middle-class Americans.
When pressed by PBS moderator Jim Lehrer on the $5 trillion gap, Romney called the president's interpretation "inaccurate" and completely reversed course on his past rhetoric, exclaiming—without facts to back it up—that the wealthy would not pay less under his tax proposal and all tax cuts or spending increases would be deficit neutral. The president looked on – almost in disbelief – and said, "Now [Romney] is saying that his big, bold idea is 'never mind'. The fact is if you are lowering rates the way you describe…it is impossible to come up with enough deductions or loopholes. It is math. It is arithmetic."
This same flip-flopping appeared in the healthcare discussion. When asked about Obamacare—a policy idea originally developed by Republicans and implemented by Romney in Massachusetts—the GOP candidate quickly agreed that despite his previous "Replace and Repeal" mantra he would keep most aspects of Obama's plan—citing, in particular, provisions on preexisting conditions and ability of young people to stay on their parents' plans until 26 years old. What then would Romney replace? That, of course, remains a mystery. But he didn't end the conversation without spewing false claims that Obama's healthcare plan increased taxes by $1 trillion, something that has consistently been debunked by non-partisan economists as yet another GOP myth.
Pundits on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News have been chewing over the details—with many liberals angry that the president didn't deliver a blow to the jugular. After weeks of debates among the political classes over who'd win and who'd lose, it now seems they're all still trying to answer that silly question. Some wanted President Obama to keep talking, keep explaining, keep expounding, but when he does they accuse him of being professorial, condescending, too long-winded.
So here's the rub, the president's record speaks for itself and is undeniable: 5 million jobs added; universal healthcare coverage for millions of previously uninsured Americans; DADT repealed; equal pay for women signed into law; the Dow Jones is at record highs—which means the average American's 401K is doing better than ever; the Iraq war has ended–on schedule, as promised; GM and Chrysler are still in business and thriving; Osama bin Laden is dead.
What more can he say?
Edward Wyckoff Williams is contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on AlJazeera, MSNBC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.