When Gov. Romney said he has “a five-point plan” and President Obama very rightly replied that it was really “a one-point plan,” that was more than a zinger – it was an important statement of where their policy differences really lie. The president was right: Mitt Romney’s thinking on rebuilding our economy hasn’t extended beyond the old Republican project of cutting taxes for corporations and wealthy individuals. That’s never built a stronger, more sustainable economy, and the days when it would win an election all by itself are long over.
Just as troubling, Gov. Romney doesn’t seem to have an immigration plan beyond some talking points about border fences and making it impossible for DREAM Act-eligible students to become citizens. The flap over his “self-deportation” gaffe has, unfortunately, lowered expectations when it comes to what his real immigration policy would be if he became president. He’s been able to fly under the radar simply by laughing it off and sticking to a vague script. If he’s elected, millions of young peoples’ livelihoods are going to be in his hands, and he’s shown them no leadership so far.
What did we hear from President Obama? Beyond the encouraging energy and conviction, he made a clear distinction and offered the country a definitive choice on the economy, immigration, equal treatment for women and the other issues that matter to this country. At this stage those distinctions should already be clear, but the president made as forceful a case as I’ve seen him make that he was right to put his faith in the auto industry, he was right to pursue health care reform, he was right to save and create millions of jobs with the Recovery Act, and he was right to pursue Osama bin Laden when his predecessor had blown him off as a non-issue.
These aren’t just rhetorical high points. They’re substantive differences between the two candidates that tend to get overshadowed when pundits start talking about who “won” the debate. On style, sure, you can say Romney won the first debate and Obama won the second. On substance, which is what we don’t hear enough about, Obama made a muddled but truthful case in the first debate and a clear, forceful, commanding argument last night. I guarantee that voters noticed.
The “binders full of women” stuff matters primarily as a window into how each candidate thinks, and that’s important too. Mitt Romney thinks a question about gun control – which he supported as governor and now opposes, for no particular reason he can name – is really a question about single women being to blame for violence. He thinks “government jobs” – policemen, firefighters, home health care professionals, public works experts – are objectionable on principle, and either want to fire them or outsource them. (Look back at the transcript; he really seems to think they’re to blame for an awful lot.) He thinks “apology tour” is an appropriate zinger when it comes to the tragic attack on the Libyan embassy. These tell us a lot about what kind of thinking he’d bring to the presidency, and I don’t think it’s a popular style.
A lot of pundits will tell you the last debate is about who can minimize mistakes. I don’t think that’s quite right. Mitt Romney thinks this race is still in his grasp, and all he has to do is keep doing what he’s doing. But on policy, especially when it comes to the economy, immigration, and women’s equality, he’s got more hard slogging to do than he thinks. I hope he takes his responsibility as potential leader of the free world as seriously as the American people demand.
Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, is co-chair of the Progressive Caucus.