DEBATE: Romney wins in Denver by TKO

DENVER — After a mistake-ridden month that had even die-hard Republicans questioning the abilities of their presidential candidate, Mitt Romney turned things around in Wednesday’s presidential debate.

As conservative syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer pointed out, Romney seemed knowledgeable, confident and full of nerve. By contrast President Barack Obama seemed cautious, even a bit smug, and he stumbled in the details of health care, taxation and other issues.

Moderator Jim Lehrer seemed to lose control, but his questions seemed fair and his influence minimal.

In the 90-minute debate in Denver, Romney never landed a fatal blow, but the consensus was clear that he was the winner. Even Democratic adviser David Axelrod admitted as much, telling Fox News, “Romney’s a good debater but it’s not a game changer.”

Republicans thought otherwise, as they celebrated the rare presidential debate that produced a clear-cut winner.

Style points matter. But the bigger question, which Watchdog reporters address here, is the degree to which either candidate addressed the issues that affect the states.

We turned to our own panel of experts in a variety of policy areas.


Robert Maranto Professor, University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform , Fayetteville, Ark.

Maranto, co-author of “President Obama and Education Reform: The Personal and the Political,” said both parties “are committed to subsidizing colleges for all kinds of things.”

But Maranto said Romney could have helped his election prospects by speaking bluntly about the sharply rising costs of post-secondary education.

“Subsidizing people who are not college material leads to a disconnect. The more you divorce the real costs, the more likely people are to get their heads under water,” Maranto said.

“Romney could have scored points by saying college isn’t necessary for everyone, and that, as Americans, you need to make your own choices,” the professor said.

“The (college) cost increases under Obama are unsustainable, and he’s pandering on student loans.”

Instead, the GOP challenger echoed the president’s plea for ongoing federal funding of colleges.

Democrats see college as a virtual necessity, which Obama affirmed in calling for 2 million more student “slots” at community colleges, saying Washington is best equipped to “create ladders of opportunity” and proposing still heavier “investment” by government.

“This harks back to the 1930s and high school expansion as a way of keeping young people off the job market. That helped depress the unemployment rate,” Maranto said.

By contrast, “many at the 2012 GOP convention were businessmen who didn’t go to college, or it wasn’t the centerpiece of their lives,” the professor noted from his Fayetteville office.

With “only 55 percent of students at public universities earning degrees in six years,” Maranto branded today’s post-secondary system bloated and inefficient.

“You simply can’t have (college) inflation rates going up double the rate of other sectors. Obama’s not doing anything about that,” he said.

Kenric Ward

Maria Ferguson , Executive director of the Center on Education Policy, George Washington University , Washington, D.C.

The attention paid to education during the debate surprised Ferguson.

Obama laid out his track record with efforts to raise standards in states, while working with both Republican and Democrat governors. Under his administration’s Race to the Top program, states have received millions of dollars to improve schools in exchange for adopting a set of national core standards that raise the rigor in the classroom. That has led to 46 states buying into the standards, the president said.

But Obama came up short in his response to Romney’s proposal to take special education and Title I funding for poor students and turn it into a “block grant” program, Ferguson said. Romney avoided calling it a voucher program, which is basically what it would become, she said.

“I’m surprised Obama didn’t come out more strongly than he did against that,” Ferguson said.

Obama also could have more clearly stated his proposals, she said, citing the plan he talked about to create 2 million more slots in community colleges, which are already bursting at the seams. The president, however, was talking about creating partnerships between community colleges and business to provide job-training programs to put 2 million people in jobs.

“There were just a couple of points where Obama really just didn’t respond in a way that was sound in a way that it could have been,” Ferguson said.

Sheena Dooley

Nate Benefield , Research director, Commonwealth Foundation , Harrisburg, Pa.

A key part of Wednesday’s first presidential debate was a section on the role of government – giving both candidates a chance to lay out their vision for the federal government in broad philosophical terms.

Both Obama and Romney used education to explain their view of how the federal government should operate.

Romney initially said education is primarily the responsibility of state and local governments, but added that the “federal government also can play a very important role.” Later, he called for federal education funding to follow students to attend the school of their choice.

Obama said the federal government “has a significant role to play” in education, and pointed to his administration’s Race To The Top program, a $4.35 billion program that rewards states with additional dollars if they make certain academic reforms intended to improve the quality of education. He said tax cuts desired by the Romney campaign would force cuts in the federal education budget.

Romney responded by saying he would not cut any federal funding for education.

Benefield said education is ultimately the responsibility of individual parents, and governments that are more responsive to parents are better equipped to handle it.

“At the local level, parents’ voices are less likely to be muted by the special interests,” he said.

Eric Boehm


Eric Fruits , Adjunct professor of economics and finance, Portland State University, School of Business Administration, Portland, Ore.

It took only a couple minutes into Obama’s opening statement for Fruits to raise an eyebrow.

It was the comment that the federal government would use the money saved from ending two wars to pay for public programs.

“One thing Obama missed on that is all that money is borrowed money,” said Fruits. “It just means we’re not going to spend as much money as we were.”

Fruits, who watched the debate with his 13-year-old son and members of the Executive Club, a group of free market and conservative advocates in the Portland area, said he thought Republican president nominee had more concrete answers throughout the debate on the economy.

Fruits said his son remarked Obama seemed to rely more on stories of real people whereas Romney stuck to statistics. Fruits said the president’s stories didn’t resonate. Though the strategy worked for former President Ronald Reagan, it wasn’t working for Obama, he said.

However, he said didn’t hear an answer from either candidate on how to deal with the strain that services like Medicaid and Medicare put on federal and state budgets.

“I didn’t really hear from either side addressing that issue,” he said.

Overall, Fruits said Romney’s point on not raising taxes hits home.

“Just raising taxes on one group of people to hand to another is not going to help the economy,” he said.

Shelby Sebens

Steve Stanek , Senior fellow, the Heartland Istitute, Chicago

Neither Obama nor Romney addressed the crushing debt and unfunded liabilities facing state governments throughout the country, including Illinois, during Wednesday night’s debate.

And the chances that voters will hear the candidates address those issues before the November election are slim, one observer said after the debate.

“I do think it’s going to be an issue for whoever wins the presidential election, because I don’t see things getting better in Illinois or in California or in Connecticut,” Stanek said.

“There are a number of states that are in horrible shape, and they are major states. And I expect one of these days some of these governors are going to come knocking on the White House door saying, ‘My state needs a whole boat load of money.’

“And what are they going to do? What are the next president and Congress going to do? Are they going to say, ‘You guys messed up your state on your own and you have to fix it on your own?’ Or are they going to funnel them a bunch of money?”

Illinois has $271.1 billion worth of debt, among the worst states in terms of total debt, according to a report by research group State Budget Solutions released in late August. The debt includes unfunded pension liability, state retiree insurance benefits, budget gaps and outstanding bonds.

–  Jayette Bolinski

 Art Hall, Director Center for Applied Economics, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kan.

Hall wasn’t impressed with the debate, though he scored Romney higher than Obama.

“I heard a lot of pablum,” Hall said. “Both sides put forward their basic ideas, but it’s really hard to tell what they would do in office.

“I’m a believer in markets, and I believe that Gov. Romney put forth principles that will allow markets to improve the strength of the economy,” Hall said. “ I think President Obama is a socialist or a centralist who will create more problems that will fall short.”

Gene Meyer


Amy Oliver Cooke, Director of the Energy Policy Center at the Independence Institute , Denver

If the debate were solely about energy, Romney would have been the hands-down winner, according to Cooke, a Colorado energy expert.

“Romney has a better take on the energy issue,” Cooke said. “He has the courage to stand up to big green industry and say no to the production tax credit for wind.”

While both candidates agreed that energy production needs to increase to help the economy and bring jobs, they had sharp differences on renewable energy.

“First of all, the Department of Energy has said the tax break for oil companies is $2.8 billion a year,” Romney said. “And in one year, you provided $90 billion in breaks to the green energy world. Now, I like green energy as well, but that’s about 50 years’ worth of what oil and gas receives.”

America is driven by oil and fossil fuels and putting so much funding into an industry that provides not even 3 percent of the nation’s energy is ludicrous, Oliver said.

“It serves as a perverse incentive,” she said. “You prop up a technology that is not yet ready for prime time, you put the cart in front of the horse.

“We’ve already poured billions and billions into wind and solar. If we followed President Obama’s path, you can count on your electric rates skyrocketing. The cost of energy, the cost of power, the cost of everything will go way up,” Cooke said.

Tori Richards

David Ikenson, Analyst for the Center for Free Trade Policy Studies, Cato Institute, Washington, D.C.

Four years ago, candidate Obama promised to create 5 million green jobs.

That simply hasn’t happened. There are a total of 140,000 people working in renewable energy in this country, according to a study by the Brookings Institution, although you can get up to 2.7 million if you count trash collectors, bus drivers, and the like.

Obama didn’t have much to say about the subject Wednesday other than a throwaway line: “I also believe we’ve got to look at energy sources of the future like wind and solar and biofuels.”

But Romney was ready to pounce, referring to the Solyndra debacle with a zinger: “He doesn’t just pick winners and losers. He picks the losers.”

Later, he professed astonishment at stimulus money wasted on green failures.

“You put $90 billion into green jobs,” Romney said. “And I’m all in favor of green energy… $90 billion? That would’ve hired 2 million teachers. $90 billion dollars. And these businesses, many of them have gone out of business. I think about half of them, of the ones that have been invested in, happened to be owned by people who were contributors to your campaigns.”

Ikenson said that he didn’t know whether the percentage of contributors was accurate, “but certainly even in the solar industry there have been several more than just Solyndra. What most caught my attention was the utter listlessness and incoherence of the president’s comments. It’s as if he has no convictions beyond the thought that he can’t keep this charade up for another four years.”

–  Jon Cassidy


David Bier , Immigration policy analyst, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Washington, D.C.

After 90 minutes of debate over domestic policy, neither Obama nor Romney managed to slip in a reference to the country’s broken immigration system, something that didn’t prove surprising to one expert.

“Both candidates agree with the fundamental system — quotas that are enforced by a militarized border, deportation, and employer sanctions,” Bier said.

Bier doesn’t expect any change of heart in the course of the policy discussion to come in the next few debates, reiterating that drastic shifts are unlikely to emerge.

“They have rhetorical differences in emphasis, but overall, neither challenges the status quo,” Bier told

Recently, Mitt Romney revealed to the Denver Post that he would keep President Obama’s deferred deportation program, bringing the candidates even closer in line before the Nov. election.

Bier said the ultimate game change would be a plan to remove the barriers to legal entry for foreign nationals, who are otherwise driven to carry on undocumented.

“What we need is an orderly and accessible process for entry that eliminates the incentive for workers to immigrate illegally, and neither candidate is talking about that.”

 Yael Ossowski


David Stokes, Policy Analyst, Show-Me Institute, St. Louis

It was one of the issues that Romney and Obama agreed on during the debate that caught the attention of Stokes: Small business could use a hand, including reducing corporate tax rates.

Stokes said that the United States has some of the highest tax rates among industrialized nations at around 35 percent. He said this puts a heavy burden on businesses, most of which are smaller “S” corporations.

Both candidates expressed an interest in reducing the tax rate.

“I hope that happens no matter who wins,” Stokes said.

Romney brought up expanding trade, especially in Latin America, as a key component in his plan to improve the American economy.

Stokes said Obama has shown willingness in that realm, “but going even further, expanding North America Free Trade Agreement zones has huge possibilities for the United States.”

In his closing statement, Romney broached the issue of putting more power in the hands of the states. Stokes liked that. “I think Missouri and other states should be their own instruments of democracy,” he said.

Johnny Kampis


Edwin Meese , Former Attorney General of the United States, and Ronald Reagan Scholar at the Heritage Foundation , Washington, D.C.

Meese, who served at U.S. Attorney General during the Reagan administration, said he was surprised that the “rule of law and the proper role of government, frankly, didn’t come up as much tonight as I would have liked.

“Romney was able to touch on clear differences with the president in the way he thinks government ought to operate, and that was useful,” Meese said.

He praised the former Massachussetts governor for being “assertive, creative and effective in giving his positions.”

“He expressed well the belief of many that America cannot continue on its current path. Near the end, in references to the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, Romney effectively differentiated his views about free enterprise from President Obama’s.”

Patrick B. McGuigan


Patrick Ishmael , Policy analyst, Show-Me Institute, St. Louis

Ishmael said he doesn’t take sides in the presidential debate, but he said that Romney’s comments on the Affordable Care Act were accurate.

“It’s important to understand the Affordable Care Act doesn’t make health care more affordable, or really more accessible,” he said.

Romney kept referring to the $716 billion he said Medicare would be trimmed under Obamacare – which both candidates agreed to call it. Ishmael said that was “indisputable.”

He said those cost cuts to make Obamacare sustainable will work only if costs are kept down. The program is too new to determine whether that’ll happen.

Ishmael said he’s not a fan of the health care advisory board (morbidly called “death panels” by many Republicans prior to the act’s passage), which will decide what will and won’t be covered and was a hot topic during the health care portion of the debate.

“I think a better way to provide care is to let the free market provide it,” he said.

While Ishmael wouldn’t declare a winner in the health care aspects of the debate, he said Romney, who helped pass a plan very similar to Obama’s while he was the Massachusetts governor, “articulated his points clearly.”

Ishmael said health care costs are going up, and it’s going to continue to be a growing issue in this country.

“No matter your view of the debate or the candidates you have to understand the federal government doesn’t have an unlimited amount of money,” he said.

 Johnny Kampis