Show vs. Substance

Paul Greenberg

10/19/2012 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

It was Clausewitz, the military strategist, who famously defined war as politics by other means. Politics in turn could be defined as history determined by other means. For each present political choice tends to come with its own view of the past. It would be hard to find a better example of that tendency than Tuesday night's presidential debate, which was not only a clash of candidates but of pasts. Which explains the competing narratives on display as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney came out of their respective corners and started swinging, each presenting a different past. You pays your money, or rather you cast your vote, and you takes your choice.

Our once and, he surely hopes, future president had a lovely past to narrate -- the story of a great young president who, after the worst economic downturn of this still young century, the worst since the Great Depression, set America aright during the past four years, lifted the economy out of this Great Recession, and put us on this golden course we're enjoying now, getting better every day in every way as we proceed with this Great Recovery.

Now that's the way to write history, or at least rewrite it.

The president's is a beautiful story, grand and uplifting, sweeping and inspiring, complete with brave hero and happy ending. Welcome to the Land of Hope and Change, where history is made to order before your eyes. (Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.) In the president's telling, the past four years acquire a roseate glow.

Sound familiar? Isn't that the way we all see it? If not, maybe the rest of us just experienced a different four years. That doesn't mean the president is lying -- he may just have a different perspective. Maybe he had a better four years than the rest of us.

It was left to the president's challenger to spoil the story by introducing a few of those dull, gray facts that can drain the color from even the brightest of fancies. Mitt Romney had more than a few such details to relate. The man is a glutton for data, spreadsheets, stats, graphs, percentages ... you'd think he was some kind of investor, mainly the successful kind, an expert at turnarounds and reorganizations who now wants to turn around the whole, gigantic enterprise and experiment called the United States of America.

The man rolls out facts and figures like a pocket calculator, flooding the conversation with them, as if he were out to transform the historical romance his opponent has just produced into a tragedy by the numbers:

"Well, what you're seeing in this country is 23 million people struggling to find a job. And a lot of them, as you say, Candy, have been out of work for a long, long, long time. ... We have fewer people working today than we had when the president took office. If the unemployment rate was 7.8 percent when he took office, it's 7.8 percent now. But if you calculated that unemployment rate, taking back the people who dropped out of the workforce, it would be 10.7 percent....

"There are 3.5 million more women living in poverty today than when the president took office. ... How about $4 trillion of deficits over the last four years, $5 trillion? ... Women have lost 580,000 jobs. That's the net of what's happened in the last four years. ... An economy with 50 percent of kids graduating from college that can't find a job, that's not what we have to have....

"President Obama was right, he said that that was outrageous, to have deficits as high as half a trillion dollars under the Bush years. He was right, but then he put in place deficits twice that size for every one of his four years. And his forecast for the next four years is more deficits almost that large. ... He said that by now we'd have unemployment at 5.4 percent. The difference between where it is and 5.4 percent is 9 million Americans without work. I wasn't the one that said 5.4 percent. This was the president's plan. Didn't get there."

"He said he would have by now put forward a plan to reform Medicare and Social Security, because he pointed out they're on the road to bankruptcy. He would reform them. He'd get that done. He hasn't even made a proposal on either one. He said in his first year he'd put out an immigration plan that would deal with our immigration challenges. Didn't even file it.

"This is a president who has not been able to do what he said he'd do. He said that he'd cut in half the deficit. He hasn't done that, either. In fact, he doubled it. He said that by now middle-income families would have a reduction in their health insurance premiums by $2,500 a year. It's gone up by $2,500 a year. ... When he took office, 32 million people were on food stamps. Today, 47 million people are on food stamps. How about the growth of the economy? It's growing more slowly this year than last year, and more slowly last year than the year before...."

Enough. Enough! The president's story was better. This one hurts. Give us Barack Obama's version of the past four years any time. What a pity it doesn't exist outside his theater of the mind, a mind so fine that an unpleasant fact never penetrates it. We the People could listen to this president all day -- if only we didn't have to live in an economy that seems strangely different from the one on his beautifully appointed stage.

But what evidence is there that Mitt Romney would do any better? Well, his record as a successful governor of Massachusetts does, and the successful turnarounds he oversaw at Bain Capital, as well as the success he made of a deeply troubled Olympics. But this is a whole, vast country -- with the biggest economy in the world. Turning around an ocean liner would be child's play compared to turning around the American economy. Why would Mr. Romney's plan turn out any better than the president's? Answer us that. And he did Tuesday night:

"You might say, 'Well, you got an example of when it worked better?' Yeah, in the Reagan Recession where unemployment hit 10.8 percent. Between that period -- the end of that recession and the equivalent of time to today, Ronald Reagan's recovery created twice as many jobs as this president's recovery."

The Gipper did it by making tough decisions, risking rather than courting the bubble Popularity, and setting the American economy on one of its longest, most sustained periods of growth in American history. Point made.

But can Mitt Romney do as well as Ronald Reagan at getting us out of our economic malaise? There's one way to find out: Give him the chance, the opportunity. That's really the theme of his campaign anyway: Opportunity. As in the Land Of. As for the incumbent, it's pretty clear what he offers. Sadly clear from the history of the last four years, the real one.

Who won Round Two of this year's presidential debates Tuesday night? The verdict isn't as clear as it was after Round One, when Mitt Romney was his usual businesslike self and Barack Obama seemed to be somewhere else. But this time the president was back at the top of his game, and it was good to see him there. Ah, if only the future of the country were a game.

It was a good, hard-fought match. And quite a contrast in styles. While the president jabbed and feinted, Mr. Romney gave his usual power-point presentation, as if preparing us for a quiz the next morning. (Oh, what fun!)

He went down his five-point list of what he'd do in the Oval Office: Ramp up energy production of all kinds. Expand trade, especially in this hemisphere. Crack down on the way China, the Communist one, has been cheating when it comes to trade. Balance the government's budget and, perhaps most of all, encourage small business instead of taxing and red-taping it to death.

Given my many biases (free markets and a free press in a free country, just to start with), I imagine I'd be mighty critical of the president's agenda for the next four years. But I can't be, not in good conscience. Given the evidence of Tuesday night's debate, he doesn't have one.

Oh, yes, who won the bout? That's easy: Candy Crowley. Of course, she had an unusual advantage. She was supposed to have been the referee.