Hard to debate a Moving Target (and other reasons why Romney won the debate tonight)

Romney won. Here’s why:

1. It’s hard to hit a moving target: When the President came ready to take on Romney’s $5 trillion tax plan, Romney simply changed his plan in real time. While this might make for good flip flop ads, the President had a very hard time trying to use prepared arguments regarding why a $5 trillion tax cut doesn’t make sense.

2. The target moved towards something more reasonable: Romney surprised the President by not only changing his positions in real time, but by changing them to something more reasonable. For instance, Romney started by staying regulation plays a necessary and important role in successful markets. True and surprising given previous red meat Romney has delivered on this. So the President resorted to saying “thats better than what you previously said.” Same goes for his tax plan. Economists generally like plans with broader bases and lower rates. Criticizing Romney’s tax plan is a lot harder when he makes the most objectionable parts (higher burdens on the middle class to finance tax cuts for the rich) disappear right before your eyes.

It was clear the moving target theme frustrated the president when he complained about Romney’s lack of specifics. While the lack of specifics is true and disappointing, this the-other-guy-is-vague argument isn’t really chest bump inducing.

3. It’s easier to criticize than to build: Romney effectively pointed out that Dodd Frank implementation is slow and that not knowing what the rules of the road are can increase uncertainty and reduce investment. Real laws have to be passed and implemented, so it’s much easier to find weak points there than in vague 300 word proposals that change in real time. Same goes for attacking too big to fail without offering an alternative.

Romney basically said, as the President pointed out, I’ll take the good parts of Dodd Frank and Obamacare and not do the rest. Not only is that ridiculous, but it’s much easier said than done.

4. Romney spouted off things that sound good until you think about them for 5 seconds:

  • 12 million jobs: the vast majority of these jobs will happen organically due to expected improvements in the economy (regardless of who is president), so this isn’t an especially impressive or bold number. Also easier to promise an outcome than to provide a plausible path to get there.
  • $716 billion: Obama explained the facts on this in the debate but Romney was undeterred in his attempt to scare old people.
  • Food stamps: Romney hit the President on an increase in TANF recipients. We’re in a recession, of course it’s going to go up!
  • Growth and the deficit: Romney nicely articulated the three ways to reduce deficits: revenues, spending, and growth. However, he’s relying on a strong link between tax cuts for rich people and growth, which just isn’t in the data. Also, there’s ample evidence form Europe that austerity doesn’t enhance growth. So when you think about what Romney would actually do, you won’t get more growth and you’re likely to get higher deficits (as the President pointed out in a nice contrast between the records Bush v Clinton on tax and surplus changes)
  • Healthcare & Private Market cost control: normally private markets are more effective at controlling costs and innovating than the government, but that’s not at all clear in a market with many market failures like the healthcare market (see here or here). The President rightly cited health economists on this issue, but the comment seemed to fall flat.
  • Romney’s China Deficit test: (i.e. is it worth borrowing from China to pay for this?) 1. Stop China baiting. 2. Yes, when it’s cheap to do so with historically low interest rates, lots of unemployed construction workers, and infrastructure work we’ll need to do at some point soon.

Other thoughts:

1. There was shameless pandering to old people on both sides. Understandable but blatant and a bit gross

2. I loved the level of wonkiness (despite Romney’s heavy use of half truths mixed with snake oil [see # 4 above]).

3. Notice that Romney says the “share” that the rich will pay won’t go down. Very different than the level or effective rates! Then again, who is to say that committing to past policy positions counts for anything anyway.

About ozidar

I'm an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and a Faculty Research Fellow at National Bureau of Economic Research. You can follow me on twitter @omzidar. http://faculty.chicagobooth.edu/owen.zidar/index.html
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4 Responses to Hard to debate a Moving Target (and other reasons why Romney won the debate tonight)

  1. JBS says:

    Great post. Pundits are talking about the President having an “off-night” simply because he couldn’t react to that moving target in a way that the average viewer would understand. His points were valid, but he came across too academic in how he defended his original point or hit a point home. It’s true, he was clearly not on his “A-game” and Romney’s new more moderate framework made it hard to react to when it was a recent development. A couple opportunities I think the President missed though:

    1) Clarity in his Offensive: The President wasn’t nearly clear, concise, and convincing enough on the fact that the Romney/Ryan budget making no financial sense whatsoever. He brought up the basic law of arithmetic once, but the reality that Ryan went onto Fox News and couldn’t describe how the plan would be “revenue neutral” is a legitimate issue. Romney’s shift in his policy stance (e.g. moving away from the $5 trillion figure) may have made it harder, but the loopholes/deductions issue is still on the table and there are NO specifics about what those would be. The President could have been much clearer about that.

    2) Jobs: Romney talked about jobs being the cornerstone of his plan and made some interesting points. However, more jobs have been created than lost since Obama took office — a fact that most voters don’t fully appreciate… one that the President did not bring up (even in the context that such figures aren’t good enough).

    The Romney camp did what it needed to last night, and the President will need to really step it up once we move into debates on foreign policy and other issues that he should win hands down.

    Jim Lehrer may also be on the chopping block here though (dont’ expect to see him in 2016), in that he let Romney drive the dialogue in a way a moderator shouldn’t….

  2. dc says:

    I agree with the comments you made. The incumbents usually lose these things, Romney was like a cornered animal, and its always far easier to criticize standing policy than it is to defend. In addition, though, reading deeper I saw shades of the tentative Obama who went with a small stimulus, reappointed a Republican to the Fed, and spent way too much time trying to peel off one Republican for health care in a bid to please centrists. He should have played the simple Bush ’04 card and hammered away at Romney’s flip-flopping. His handlers should have had him ready with sound-byte lines on key points that he needs to hit again and again. But the worst thing to happen was that he let himself be pushed around by Romney, and voters are not attracted to weak leaders who can’t or won’t fight back in that situation…Dems are back as the Mommy Party. Let’s hope things aren’t actually this bleak, and that the President redeems himself in his next outing.

  3. JBS says:

    @dc: not sure it was that he seemed weak or simply disengaged. Neither is good, but they send very different messages that lead to a bad taste in the mouths of voters. The campaign is coming out swinging in the wake of this, which needs to come across less like a move of desparation than it has over the last 24 hours.

  4. dc says:

    @JBS: Perhaps. But I saw Romney as being more confident, aggressive, and alpha, and the president, despite a few nice lines, as being pretty passive and defensive. Thankfully, he took a big lead into the debate and the jobs report was a total gift.

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