In a surreal reversal of the critique leveled at President Obama since he accepted the Democratic nomination four years ago, the president’s supporters argued on Sunday that Mitt Romney was all sizzle and no steak in the first presidential debate.
It may be the first time Romney has been accused of displaying too much style.
Flummoxed by what has widely been called a resounding win for Romney – and the equally widespread assessment that Obama was flat – Obama strategists say the Republican won on style, not substance.
“It reminded me of Burns—‘All you need in show business is sincerity and if you can fake that, you've got it made,’” said senior strategist David Axelrod on CBS’s Face the Nation, referring to a line from comedian George Burns. “That's what Gov. Romney has been about this week.”
Fellow senior Obama campaign adviser Robert Gibbs took the case to ABC’s This Week, where he repeatedly delivered backhanded compliments to Romney’s “masterful theatrical performance.”
Republicans defended Romney, with adviser Ed Gillespie saying Democrats have no other line of attack. “The problem they have is that the debate's performance on Wednesday evening was not a matter of style, it was a matter of substance,” Gillespie said, adding that Romney delivered a “fact-based critique” of Obama’s policies.
Newt Gingrich went further, linking Obama’s debate performance to actor Clint Eastwood’s “empty chair” monologue at the Republican convention. “The weird moment with Eastwood and an empty chair may turn out to be symbolic,” he said on NBC’s Meet the Press.
But Axelrod also accused Romney of being “dishonest,” pointing to Romney’s insistence that he is not championing a $5 trillion tax cut and that his healthcare plan would cover people with pre-existing conditions.
The prior-conditions statement is indeed untrue, as Romney spokesmen admitted in the post-debate spin room. The tax issue, though, is more of a gray area. Romney’s statement that he doesn’t want to “cut” taxes by $5 trillion is slippery. He has championed cutting tax rates, but he also wants to broaden the base and has insisted that his tax plan would not add to the deficit.
Romney also said during the debate that he would not raise taxes on the middle class, after Obama raised the issue by referring to a much-discussed Tax Policy Center analysis released last month that found he would.
Romney campaign adviser Ed Gillespie pointed out on This Week that the analysis “uses the word ‘assume’ or ‘assumption’ 68 times.”
But that underlines the point: Romney has not given specifics about which tax expenditures he would cut in order to lower tax rates by 20 percent without adding to the deficit. Given the distribution of the biggest tax expenditures, the Tax Policy Center concluded it wouldn’t be possible to maintain revenue levels without allowing some middle-class payers to see a net increase in their taxes.
Still, the level of detail the candidates went into Wednesday – in a debate that did not include discussion of social issues or the words “47 percent” or “European-style socialism” – in some ways belies Democrats’ claims about Romney’s purported flashiness.