LOS ANGELES -- Score one for Mitt Romney, at least on style. He did what he had to in the Denver debate, though truth was not his strongest suit. President Obama barely showed up, but he was, overall, a good deal more truthful, especially when he said he'd rather be home celebrating his 20th wedding anniversary.
Both men had numbers and more numbers, exaggerations and misstatements ready, but only Romney pushed back. Obama was strangely passive, letting the challenger get away with political manslaughter. The president focused on his own numbers, some of them questionable, but left the challenger's more-questionable numbers unchallenged.
It was a wonky night. "A seminar by a business consultant and a college professor," said The New York Times. The professor in the White House was much more concerned about impressions of his governance than with his campaign.
Both men seemed knowledgeable, even if Romney continued to avoid specific details on what he would actually do as president. He did say he would end subsidies for public broadcasting, but that small deal was about it. And they tossed around insider names like "Simpson-Bowles" and "Ron Wyden" to a television audience that probably couldn't follow them into the weeds of Washington. It is interesting that the Obama line that got the best response from instant focus groups in Denver and around the country was in the vernacular: "I'm not going to let insurance companies jerk you around."
The president let opportunity after opportunity slip by. There was no mention of the Republican candidate's characterization of 47 percent of the nation as freeloaders, or the reason that he kept saying "current Social Security recipients" was that Americans under 55 years would almost certainly have their benefits cut under a President Romney and Vice President Paul Ryan.
Nor did the Democratic president mention that Ryan's Republican budget would "cut" Medicare by the same $716 billion in future costs that Obama has proposed. Nor did he deign to mention that his administration's "green energy" expenditures are closer to $10 billion than the $90 billion asserted by Romney. Then there was Romney's denial that his tax cut proposals during the Republican primary debates would reduce federal revenues by $5 trillion -- actually they might.
Factcheck.org, which is where professionals turn in these situations, backs Romney on the $5 trillion question because last Wednesday night he said he would not cut revenues if they added to the overall federal deficit. Personally, I found that fuzzy at best. The man believes tax cuts on everyone, particularly high earners and high rollers, will increase tax revenues. History says he's wrong, but there's no doubt he would try it.
Then Romney accused Obama of excessive partisanship, saying that only Democrats backed Obamacare. The president did not respond that Republicans in Congress said their goal was to destroy him and his presidency, whatever it took -- a first in American history.
Going to Factcheck again, this from the website:
"We found exaggerations and false claims flying thick and fast during the first debate. ...
"Obama oversold his health care law, claiming that health care premiums have 'gone up slower than any time in the last 50 years.' That's true of health care spending, but not premiums. ...
"Romney claimed a new board established by the Affordable Care Act is 'going to tell people ultimately what kind of treatments they can have.' Not true. The board only recommends cost-saving measures for Medicare, and is legally forbidden to ration care or reduce benefits.
"Obama said 5 million private-sector jobs had been created in the past 30 months. Perhaps so, but that counts jobs that the Bureau of Labor Statistics won't add to the official monthly tallies until next year. For now, the official tally is a bit over 4.6 million.
"Romney accused Obama of doubling the federal deficit. Not true. The annual deficit was already running at $1.2 trillion when Obama took office.
"Romney claimed that middle-income Americans have 'seen their income come down by $4,300.' That's too high. Census figures show the decline in median household income during Obama's first three years was $2,492, even after adjusting for inflation.
"Obama again touted his '$4 trillion' deficit reduction plan, which includes $1 trillion from winding down wars that are coming to an end in any event.
"Romney sometimes came off as a serial exaggerator. He said 'up to' 20 million might lose health insurance under the new law, citing a Congressional Budget Office study that actually put the likely number who would lose employer-sponsored coverage at between 3 million and 5 million. He said 23 million Americans are 'out of work' when the actual number of jobless is much lower. He claimed half of all college grads this year can't find work, when, in fact, an AP story said half either were jobless or underemployed. And he again said Obama 'cut' $716 billion from Medicare, a figure that actually reflects a 10-year target for slowing Medicare spending, which will continue to grow."
So it went. You pay your taxes and make your choice.