|The Boston Branch of the NAACP and Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity hosted a debate watch party for the first Presidential Debate at Phillips Old Colony House in Dorchester. (Eric Esteves photo)|
A crowd of more than 200 people turned out last week for a presidential debate-watching party sponsored by the NAACP Boston Branch and Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. at the Phillips Old Colony House in Dorchester. (Yawu Miller photo)
President Barack Obama’s first debate performance was widely panned as listless by pundits and polls, but former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won no points from African American viewers at a Boston NAACP debate watch party last week.
The Republican nominee, who drew zero percent of black support in an August NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, left watchers rolling their eyes and hoping the incumbent does better in the final two showdowns before the Nov. 6 election.
“We know him,” said District 7 City Councilor Tito Jackson of the ex-Bay State governor at Phillips Old Colony House in Dorchester. “We know he walked away from the Ferdinand Building. We know he couldn’t find his way to Roxbury. And we know he wasn’t a champion for the middle class when he was governor. We can judge him on his record.”
While African Americans outside of Massachusetts may not have the benefit of experience, Romney’s pledge to repeal the national health care plan and cut federal spending probably didn’t earn him many friends among the nation’s black population, according to Nancy Rachel Rousseau, a field organizer for the Elizabeth Warren Senate campaign.
“There really isn’t much support for him,” she said. “He doesn’t come off as being genuine.”
Despite the lack of backing for Romney among the spectators last week, many acknowledged that he out-performed the president in the University of Denver clash, which focused largely on domestic issues affecting the middle class. The topic of poverty and the growing ranks of the homeless and the hungry hardly made an appearance in the debate.
“I don’t think Obama was on his A-game,” said Hyde Park resident Nakisha Lewis. “I hope Obama does better in the next debate.”
Pundits on the national stage gave Romney credit for his aggressive debating style, which he used to critique the president’s policies and record in office. Obama was faulted for not responding aggressively to Romney’s attacks and failing to call Romney out on his protean positions on issues and other weaknesses.
The outcome of the first White House debate wasn’t the only area of agreement among observers. There was near unanimity in declaring that the showdown in the Mile High City set forth a clear set of choices between governing philosophies, especially in the areas of taxes and health care.
The nation’s first black president was the first to draw a clear line in the sand during the 90-minute exchange, moderated by Public Broadcasting Service news host Jim Lehrer.
“Governor Romney has a perspective that says that if we cut taxes skewed toward the wealthy and roll back regulations, that we’ll be better off,” said Obama. “I’ve got a different view. I think we’ve got to invest in education and training. I think it’s important for us to develop new sources of energy here in America, that we change our tax code to make sure that we’re helping small businesses and companies that are investing here in the United States, that we take some of the money that we’re saving as we wind down two wars to rebuild America and that we reduce our deficit in a balanced way that allows us to make these critical investments.”
Romney, after congratulating the president on his 20th wedding anniversary, joked that “I’m sure this was the most romantic place you could imagine — here with me.”
After that, the gloves came off.
“The president has a view very similar to the view he had when he ran four years ago, that a bigger government, spending more, taxing more, regulating more — if you will, trickle-down government — would work,” responded Romney. “That’s not the right answer for America. I’ll restore the vitality that gets America moving again.”
Romney set forth his goals of achieving energy independence, increasing international trade, preparing the workforce for the jobs of the new economy, reaching a balanced budget and championing small businesses.
But time and again, the debate returned to the theme of which candidate would be better off for the middle class, with both Obama and Romney battling in the weeds of marginal tax rates, deductions, exemptions and health care minutiae.
“When it comes to our tax code,” said Obama, “Gov. Romney and I both agree that our corporate tax rate is too high. So I want to lower it, particularly for manufacturing, taking it down to 25 percent. But I also want to close those loopholes that are giving incentives for companies that are shipping jobs overseas. I want to provide tax breaks for companies that are investing here in the United States.”
Romney pushed back on the incumbent’s charge that he would cut taxes by $5 trillion, with much of the benefit going to the wealthiest Americans while blowing an even bigger hole in the annual $1.1 trillion budget deficit.
“My view is that we ought to provide tax relief to people in the middle class. But I’m not going to reduce the share of taxes paid by high-income people,” said Romney.
The new argument by the former governor that his supply-side plan would not reduce taxes for the wealthiest was received with skepticism at the Dorchester gathering, where questions were raised about exactly how reducing tax rates by 20 percent would be offset by eliminating deductions and exemptions yet to be named by the Republican nominee.
Sean Daughtry, Boston Branch NAACP debate watch organizer, called Romney’s ever-evolving position as a “reset.”
“He’s reset his campaign to say his tax cuts are going to benefit the middle class, not the wealthy,” Daughtry said.
On the issue of small business development, the argument once again returned to taxes. Romney accused the president of raising taxes on small businesses in his plan to eliminate the Bush tax cuts for those earning over $250,000. Obama countered with the assertion that 97 percent of small businesses would not be affected by the change.
Turning to health care, the candidates both attempted to shore up their support among seniors by focusing on their plans for Medicare, which provides health care for over 50 million elderly and retired Americans.
Obama, touting the landmark Affordable Care Act, argued that the legislation strengthened Medicare by extending its solvency, creating new incentives for wellness, and bringing down the growth of costs. He criticized Romney for proposing to turn Medicare into a voucher program that would leave seniors saddled with thousands of dollars in additional bills.
“This idea, which was originally presented by Congressman Ryan, your running mate, is that we would give vouchers to seniors, and they could go out in the private marketplace and buy their own health insurance,” said Obama. “The problem is that because the voucher wouldn’t necessarily keep up with health care inflation, it was estimated that this would cost the average senior about $6,000 a year.”
Romney, who as governor signed the signature Massachusetts health care bill that served as the model for Obamacare, vowed to repeal the federal law, focused on $716 billion in Medicare cuts under the act and the trend of doctors starting to turn away Medicare patients because of lower reimbursement rates.
“He says by not overpaying hospitals and providers, actually just going to them and saying we’re going to reduce the rates you get paid across the board, everybody’s going to get a lower rate,” said Romney. “Some 15 percent of hospitals and nursing homes say they won’t take anymore Medicare patients under that scenario.”
Obama said the $716 billion in cuts were reductions in payments to insurance companies that were used to strengthen Medicare.
While the dizzying array of facts and figures may have left some debate-watchers confused, there was little doubt about the strength of Romney’s vigorous performance. Appearing confident and combative, he presented a clear contrast with Obama’s fatigued appearance and, at times, faltering answers. Polls taken in the wake of the debate showed that Obama’s post-convention advantage of five points disappearing, with the race now being called a statistical dead heat.
Voters will have two more chances to see the heavyweights step into the debate ring.
After the debate this week between Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, the nominees will meet Oct. 16 at Hofstra University in a town meeting format moderated by CNN political correspondent Candy Crowley. The final presidential debate takes place Oct. 22 at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., where CBS “Face the Nation” host Bob Schieffer will referee a foreign policy discussion.
While the president’s performance may have disappointed many in his strongest base of support, the debate-watch was a solid success, according to Daughtry.
“I think we’ve made politics cool,” he said. “This is a Wednesday night. People came to watch a debate, which usually is not an engaging event. We’ve created a real sense of community.”