Obama's amateur hour

With little argument, Mitt Romney had a great evening Wednesday.

From his reference to the present Democratic economic plan as a ???middle class squeeze??? to his standard about a program ???not being worth it if you have to borrow from China,??? the Republican nominee emerged from the first presidential debate as if he were a Hall of Fame pitcher for his beloved Boston Red Sox.

By far, Romney???s best line???used more than once???was to dub the Obama administration???s overall policy of enhancing the role of government ???trickle-down-government.??? In so doing, he needled the president by turning around the standard Democratic putdown of GOP calls for across-the-board tax cuts as ???trickle-down-economics.???

Proudly recalling how he worked with a Democratic-controlled legislature to pass his own health care plan, the former Massachusetts governor invoked John Kennedy???s famous call to ???get the country moving again.??? He even paraphrased the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan???s (D-N.Y.) admonition that ???you are not entitled to the facts??? by telling him that “you have your own house, you have your own plane, but you don’t have your own facts.”

In contrast, President Obama appeared defensive, off his game, and, at times, harsh. After a half-hour into the debate, Obama rambled and returned to well worn rhetorical lines: from references to ???millionaires and billionaires??? who are benefiting from the Bush tax cuts to insisting he has ???reduced domestic discretionary spending to the lowest level since Eisenhower.???

Obama clearly failed in his attempt to come up with anything truly fresh and relied on now familiar-attacks on his opponent???s tax plan and energy policy. More than a few times, he appeared less the candidate-in-command than Romney, whose mastery of facts and knowledge of government programs was akin to that of Bill Clinton in his now-celebrated nomination speech for President Obama in Charlotte last month.

Romney also worked in some themes that are likely to resonate among conservatives who still have doubts about the nominee who was obviously the least conservative of the GOP candidates for nomination this year. He made a forceful case for the 10th Amendment and referred to the states as the ???laboratories for policy,??? underscored the importance of state and local control having the most impact on public education, and vowed that he would ???build that pipeline??????a reference to the Keystone XL pipeline that the Obama administration has held up.

Overall, even those who admire Obama in the liberal media agree he had, at worst, an ???off night tonight.??? Those in his own party are clearly somewhat more worried than they were a few hours ago. And among conservatives, there is a budding sense that, hey, ???tonight might be the first day of the rest of the Romney campaign.”

Health Care

Health care was a major section of the Denver debate in the second half.

Romney had a tough task, needing to acknowledge his universal health care plan in Massachusetts, while also criticizing the president???s 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which was not inspired by Romney???s plan, but was developed by many of the same advisers who staffed the Romney effort.

Romney said the biggest problem with the president???s plan is that people cannot afford it.

Too many businesses that currently provide health care insurance for their workers are considering dropping that benefit because they cannot afford it, he said.

???The cost of health care is just prohibitive, and we gotta deal with cost,??? he said.

???When you look at Obamacare, the Congressional Budget Office said it will cost $2,500 more than traditional insurance; so, it is adding to cost,??? he said.

???In fact, when the president was running for office, he said that by this year, he would have brought down the cost of insurance for each family by $2,500,??? the Republican nominee said.

Obama had a bad night.

The health care section was supposed to be where he should have been running up points. If he would have praised Romney???s Massachusetts health care law, he would not only have neutralized criticism of his own plan, he would have driven a wedge between the GOP standard bearer and his party rank-and-file anxious about the federal takeover of medical care.

Instead of running up points, Obama repeatedly missed opportunities. He told wandering family health care stories, presented disconnected facts and made mind-numbing data points.

–Neil W. McCabe

Energy & Environment

The first zinger of the night came from Romney, who criticized Obama for spending $90 billion on ???green energy??? like Solyndra, the failed solar panel company that was propped up with more than $500 million in a guaranteed government loan.

???You don???t pick winners and losers, you just pick losers,??? Romney said.

Obama said he agreed with Romney that energy production needs a boost in the U.S., ???but I also believe that we’ve got to look at the energy sources of the future, like wind and solar and biofuels, and make those investments.???

Obama did not say how he wanted to boost oil production or lower gas prices, but did say that oil companies, which pay some of the highest tax rates in the U.S. corporate world, should pay even more.

???Does anybody think that ExxonMobil needs some extra money, when they’re making money every time you go to the pump???? Obama asked.

Romney pointed out that in Obama???s four-year term, gas prices have doubled and electricity prices have increased.

???Middle income families are being crushed,??? Romney said.

???Energy is critical. The president pointed out correctly that production of oil and gas are up … but not due to his policies, in spite of his policies,??? Romney said.

Increased production is occurring on private property, but not on public lands that provide revenue to the Treasury. Obama has cut the number of permits to drill on public land in half — Romney said that if he is elected, he would double the number.

???And, by the way, I like coal,??? Romney said. ???I’m going to make sure we can continue to burn clean coal. People in the coal industry feel like it’s getting crushed by your policies. I want to get America and North America energy independent so we can create those jobs.???

–Audrey Hudson

Defense & National Security

Despite early speculation that the first presidential debate would veer into discussion of recent events in Libya and the Middle East, both candidates seemed content to keep to the set domestic policy topics Wednesday night.

But Romney, perhaps eager not to repeat his convention mistake of failing to mention the troops, was the only candidate to specifically discuss his support of the military, bringing up sequestration cuts to defense on two occasions.

“I do not believe in cutting our military. I believe in protecting the strength of our military,” Romney said as he discussed the role of government, calling U.S. forces “second to none.”

Near the end of the debate, Romney reiterated the roughly $1 trillion in cuts to defense that are slated to come on Obama’s watch, vowing to fight them if he was elected.

Obama tried to make up ground as the candidates’ face-off came to a close, reminding the audience that his presidency saw the death of Osama bin Laden and repeating his claim, disputed in some sectors, that the terrorist group al Qaeda has been significantly weakened.

But Obama never countered Romney’s assertion that he wouldn’t stop sequestration cuts, even though defense leaders and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have deplored them.

And, as the universal rules of debate make clear, silence is tantamount to concession. Romney won the point.

–Hope Hodge

Free Enterprise

There???s a severe contradiction in the philosophy Obama sought to express Wednesday night, which has ramifications for every part of the American business sector: the president felt it necessary to offer ritual praise for ???free enterprise,??? but in every practical application, he describes it as dangerous and untrustworthy. He saluted ???opportunity??? rhetorically, but his policies are based on the idea that only government can detect and manage opportunity. He likes to use the word ???choice,??? but accuses Romney of throwing Medicare beneficiaries to the wolves by offering them choices.

Obama can use the language of liberty for the odd rhetorical flourish, but Mitt Romney demonstrated that he understands what it means. Romney???s was a coherent vision of American energy and innovation unleashed against every national challenge, from job creation to education. Obama thinks an awful lot of things are just too important for free people to handle through voluntary cooperation ??? and he doesn???t like being reminded of Big Government???s awful track record at handling them. As Romney mused, it???s hard to think of an example of anything that has actually been made more efficient, and less expensive, through government control.

One of Obama???s big problems is that he was defending theories, while Romney was talking about principles ??? and Obama???s dismal record disproves his theories. Romney???s discussion of what could have been bought with the billions wasted on Solyndra and other green energy boondoggles — 50 years of the oil tax credits Obama complained about, or 2 million teachers — was devastating. Obama???s attempt to boast about increased oil and gas production was short-circuited when Romney pointed out that all of that development is happening in spite of Obama???s policies, on private land where Obama can???t shut it down. No one watching that debate could have the slightest doubt which candidate was serious about a high-energy, independent future ??? in every sense of both words.

–John Hayward