A complicated truth is often less useful to a politician than a simple half-truth delivered with confidence. It helps if the politician delivering the half-truth appears wholly convinced of it himself. In this year’s first presidential debate, Mitt Romney told a great many half-truths about his platform and his record, but he told them all with stunning self-assurance. No one seemed more stunned than Barack Obama.

This clearly wasn’t the Romney he had been expecting, the one who had faithfully repeated right-wing boilerplate for most of the campaign. The Romney who showed up at the debate in Denver appeared to be a nonideological technocrat whose chief concern was the suffering of the unemployed. He floated like a butterfly above demands that he be more specific about his plans, passing his vagueness off as proof of his statesmanship: unlike Obama, he wouldn’t try to dictate policies to Capitol Hill, but would negotiate with lawmakers of both parties. (Never mind the strategic refusal of Republicans on Capitol Hill to negotiate with Obama about anything, or Romney’s willingness to be both demanding and very specific about his favorite policy: tax cuts.) Romney stung like a bee, castigating the president for his failure to curb the nation’s growing debt. (Never mind Romney’s support for the Bush administration’s unfunded wars and tax cuts, which caused much of that debt.)

Obama tried in vain to point out that Romney couldn’t possibly keep all the promises he’s been making: to cut taxes for the rich without adding to the deficit or raising taxes on the middle class; to repeal the Affordable Care Act while preserving its guarantee of coverage for people with preexisting conditions. Again and again, Romney insisted he could have it both ways, and promised to provide all the details once elected. It’s not easy to keep up with a candidate who is willing to say anything he thinks voters want to hear—and who seems to believe whatever he happens to be saying at the moment, even if it contradicts what he’s said before.

But what does Obama stand for? In Denver, the answer was neither as clear nor as compelling as it needed to be. Like his opponent, the president offered a vague plan to spur economic growth, failing to mention that for the past thirty years growth has not always benefited the average American. Median income has stagnated even as GDP has gone up. It should be clear by now that growth is no longer a reliable indicator of economic health, if it ever was. Too much of the nation’s wealth is now frozen at the very top; if it is going to trickle down to the rest of the country, the government will have to apply some heat. That would mean a more progressive tax code and more rigorous regulation of the financial industry.

Obama spoke as vaguely—if not quite as disingenuously—as Romney about helping the “middle class,” a category that now seems to include just about everyone. While reaffirming his pledge not to renew the Bush tax cuts for the richest Americans, the president chose not to acknowledge something else he and most voters must know: that the federal government cannot responsibly solve its long-term fiscal problems unless some of those who consider themselves middle-class pay more in taxes. Obama’s conservative critics are right about one thing at least: There aren’t enough millionaires and billionaires in the United States to foot all the bills. People who make more than $100,000 a year—doctors and lawyers and, yes, some successful small-business owners—will also have to pitch in.

It was indicative of the debate’s tone and skewed parameters that, while both candidates had a lot to say about high- and middle-income taxpayers, neither said much about low-income Americans—a.k.a. the poor. President Obama never used either of those terms, while Romney used them only to defend himself against the widespread suspicion that the interests of those he has described as the “47 percent” are of little interest to him. His rhetoric on this point suggested a new class-based version of federalism: Washington will take care of the middle class, while the states are left to deal with the poor however they see fit. According to Romney, his plan to reduce federal spending for Medicaid should be understood not as a refusal to make adequate provision for those in need but rather as a tribute to states’ rights.

The president could have contested this point—along with many others—but throughout the debate he seemed strangely reluctant to dwell on the cruel logic of his opponent’s agenda. With the presidency hanging in the balance, he chose to maintain his presidential reserve when what the occasion really demanded was some democratic candor. If he doesn’t provide it, no one will.

Published in the 2012-10-26 issue: 
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