Why Last Night’s Debate was a Replay of the First Bush/Gore 2000 Debate

This morning on the BBC I was asked why the “great communicator” Barack Obama had done so poorly in last night’s debate.

It suggested several reasons. Partly, I said, it was because Romney’s unforeseen rhetorical “move to the center” threw Obama off his game. Partly, I argued, it was that the president, at this late date, still hasn’t found a pithy way to talk about his considerable first term achievements (in health care, energy, education, and financial regulation) and how those achievements could translate into job gains in the future, and he hasn’t put forth a specific policy agenda for the second term to insure those gains (by the way, this also explains why his convention speech was so subpar).

But I also said that it was simply difficult to argue with an opponent who is engaging in the level of factual mendacity we saw out of Romney, and that last night reminded me of the first debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000. As you may recall, in that debate Gore pointed out time and time again that Bush was misstating his proposed budget—that his tax cuts would go disproportionately to the wealthy and that those tax cuts would dwarf what he was claiming he would spend on education, health care, and defense. In response, Bush shamelessly disassembled and said it was Gore who was peddling “fuzzy math.” There was no way for the audience to judge who was right, and they got no help from the moderator, who was—surprise surprise—Jim Lehrer, the same person who moderated last night.

Of course subsequent events proved that Gore was right on the facts. But he was widely judged the loser of that debate.

One thing, however, has changed since 2000. Back then, virtually no one in the mainstream media—save Paul Krugman–called Bush out on his dishonest numbers. But today, fact-checking sites that didn’t exist in 2000 have been picking apart the veracity of both Obama’s and Romey’s debate performances, and so far giving the latter nearly all the Pinocchios. As Ed, Jonathan Bernstein and others have pointing out, the real question is whether, over the next few days, the story in the press remains Romney’s “superior” performance, or the mendacity behind that performance.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.