Conventional wisdom about politics is usually wrong. That is why I often disagree with it.
But I can’t recall a time when I disagreed more profoundly with the conventional wisdom that has coalesced around a major news event.
In last night’s debate, I just didn’t see the overwhelming, game-changing victory for Mitt Romney that his supporters are touting all over television and the Internet today.
I didn’t see the humiliating defeat for President Obama that some liberals saw as they began their bellyaching about how President Obama has lost his momentum and could now lose the election.
I saw a serious, substantive policy debate in which neither candidate slipped up or neither candidate delivered a knockout punch. I saw a match that basically ended in a draw.
There was no one moment that I could point to as evidence that either candidate “lost” the debate.
There have been those moments in debates. We know them when we see them.
I have been covering presidential debates for over two decades. I remember Ronald Reagan dismissing Jimmy Carter’s attacks on his proposals by saying “There You Go Again.” I remember when the Gipper put the age issue to rest in his debate with Walter Mondale by promising “not to hold his opponent’s youth and inexperience against him.”
Last night’s debate had nothing like that.
I have moderated presidential debates and seen those moments up close and personal. When I sparred with Newt Gingrich at the GOP presidential debate in South Carolina earlier this year, I knew by the reaction of the audience to his “First of all, Juan…” answer - that he had won the debate.
But Wednesday night’s presidential debate was the first in history not scored on the basis of what was happening between the candidates.
It was scored minute by minute in the blogosphere and on Twitter by Hollywood celebrities, media personalities, and politicians.
That instantaneous scoring distorted the reality of the debate. Instead, the focus was on the put-downs, the one-liners, the expectations of the folks doing the tweets.
Liberals wanted to see a more aggressive President Obama throwing rhetorical punches at Romney over Bain Capital, his tax returns and his “47 percent” video. They were sorely disappointed. Over on MSNBC, Chris Matthews declared “What was Obama doing tonight? He was enduring….What was Romney doing tonight? He was winning.”
Liberal comedian and Obama donor Bill Maher tweeted during the debate "I can't believe I'm saying this, but Obama looks like he DOES need a teleprompter.”
They wanted a caged death-match, a cable TV scream and shout match, an emotionally satisfying knock-out. Sorry, it was a substantive debate.
Where I agree with the conventional wisdom is that the President failed to challenge some outrageous assertions by Romney. Some of his claims were just whoppers. President Obama and debate moderator Jim Lehrer just let him get away with it.
Let’s take the biggest whopper told by Romney that Obama and Lehrer did not bother challenge.
Obama criticized Romney for his five trillion dollar tax cut plan that benefits the wealthy and is not deficit neutral. “Governor Romney’s central economic plan calls for a $5 trillion tax cut on top of the extension of the Bush tax cuts, so that is another trillion dollars. And $2 trillion in additional military spending that the military hasn’t asked for. That is $8 trillion.”
Romney’s response to this was not - as many had expected - to say that his tax cut costs less than that or that it would in fact be deficit neutral.
No, Romney responded by rejecting the hefty price tag all together.
“I don’t have a five trillion dollar tax cut,” Romney said. “I don’t have a tax cut of the scale that you’re talking about.”
Who is he kidding?
The non-partisan, widely respected Tax Policy Center, has calculated that Romney’s tax plan would cost $360 billion in year one before it is offset by closing loopholes and lowering deductions (Romney has not said which ones). Once Romney’s plan is put in place, they say, it will cost a little over $5trillion in one decade.
This is simple mathematics. The constituent pieces of Romney’s plan each cost money. Romney wants to lower income tax rates by 20% across all tax brackets. He wants to eliminate taxes on capital gains and dividends for those earning less than $200,000. Higher-income Americans will, by definition, get more money under his plan than the Obama plan. This. Will. Cost. Money.
Romney’s one fig leaf for claiming his plan is “revenue neutral” is to say that he will close tax loopholes and deductions used by wealthier Americans. He did not say specifically which loopholes and deductions he would close or lower or by how much he would do that. So, we have no way of knowing whether they would.
This was a prime opportunity for President Obama or Jim Lehrer to press Romney for specifics. They did not take it.
Politifact rates the Obama’s charge of Romney’s $5 trillion tax cuts as “mostly true.”
Romney fired back at Obama that “5 studies” supported his tax plan.
Politifact and the Washington Post have both said Romney’s defense is bogus.
Romney repeated his charge that President Obama had cut $716 billion from Medicare as part of his health reform. Bill Clinton debunked that charge in his Democratic National Convention Speech last month when he said “There were no cuts to benefits. None. What the president did was to save money by taking the recommendations of a commission of professionals to cut unwarranted subsidies to providers and insurance companies that were not making people healthier and were not necessary to get the providers to provide the services”
This would have been the moment for President Obama to crib Clinton’s zinger and point out “that 716 billion dollars is exactly the same amount of Medicare savings Congressman Ryan had in his own budget. It takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did.”
Romney denied that there were any tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas. “
"Look, I've been in business for 25 years. I have no idea what you are talking about. I maybe need to get a new accountant. The idea that you get a break for shipping jobs overseas is simply not the case," Romney said.
Politifact looked at the claim back when Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse said it on the Senate floor in September 2010. They rated it “True.” The law does permit companies who move factories overseas to take a deduction for moving their jobs overseas.
Even our own FoxNews.com fact checkers have pointed this out noting that the tax law makes no distinction between a deduction for moving a company within the United States and moving it to a foreign country. None. All Obama is saying is that it should.
I could go on and on detailing the litany of outrageous statements made by Romney that should have been – but were not – challenged by Obama.
Maybe like Muhammad Ali, he was doing the rope-a-dope. Letting Romney tire himself out and think he is winning – only to come back in the second and third debate and knock him out with facts.
Juan Williams is a Fox News political analyst. He is the author of several books including "Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America--and What We Can Do About It" and "Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate."