As expected, in the first debate Mitt Romney demonstrated that there is fundamentally little difference between himself and Obama.
Clearly, Romney's biggest Achilles Heal is healthcare. As Obama hammered home, ObamaCare is modeled after RomneyCare in Massachusetts. Romney simply had no way to wiggle around the issue, and his promise to repeal and replace ObamaCare had no credibility. The one highlight was his sharp focus on the (IPAB) board that has the power to dictate healthcare decisions of doctors and patients. But given his strong statist inclinations toward healthcare, it's hard to imagine anything he would put in its place that would not ultimately lead to some form of rationing.
On education, Romney endorsed a large federal role for education. His idea to have government grade the schools so parents could tell the good ones from the bad smacks of central planning.
Romney enthusiastically endorsed government regulation of business, with only the tepid "I can do it better and more efficiently" establishment Republican/conservative line. He lost the chance to place the blame for the Great Recession squarely where the mountain of facts tell us it belongs--on government regulation and interference into the markets (although he correctly attacked our "too-big-to-fail" bank policies). Obama was thus able to perpetuate the lie that lack of regulation and tax cuts caused the whole debacle, giving credence to his call for ever-more regulation.
On taxes and spending, Romney made pretty clear he wouldn't raise taxes. But I think he squandered a chance to use the tax issue to put force a bold tax reform plan like a flat tax, and he took pains to avoid any real commitment to reducing taxes in any meaningful way. On spending, his assertion that we could grow our way out of the deficits is unconvincing to say the least, considering the size, scope, and runaway nature of government entitlement programs. He simply does not have the heart to say what needs to be done with spending.
On Lehrer's question about the proper role of government, Romney fell flat, saying his interpretation of the "pursuit of happiness" principle is an endorsement of welfare statism. Not surprisingly, Romney believes that the welfare state is compatible with freedom: "But we also believe in maintaining for individuals the right to pursue their dreams and not to have the government substitute itself for the rights of free individuals." The contradiction is obvious.
On the positive side, he convincingly demonstrated his commitment to maintaining a strong military. Romney was better on energy. While giving the obligatory nod to "alternative energy," he went to bat for fossil fuels, especially the Obama-battered coal industry and the Keystone pipeline. I liked that he called the President on the surge in domestic natural gas and oil production--which Obama took credit for--by noting that the surge was in spite of, not because of, Obama's policies. I also like his introduction of the term "trickle-down government," a nice retort to Obama's insulting smear of free markets as "top down" or "trickle down" economics.
Policy specifics aside, though, the big message that came across in this debate is that Romney clearly has some genuine respect for business and the individual--a respect that may help pull him in the right direction on policy. Despite insultingly phony lip-service to free enterprise and freedom, Obama clearly has nothing but contempt for the individual's liberty and dignity, as epitomized in his frequent references to freer healthcare markets as "being at the mercy of private insurance companies." Disappointingly, Romney failed to capitalize on this Democrat talking point. He should have hit that one out of the ballpark. While he did note that, in the private market, you are free to switch insurers any time you're not satisfied with the one you have, he failed to hammer home that being at the mercy of government is the real threat to the individual.
Still, for liberty lovers, Romney showed that he is the clear choice in this election. Though there is little hope of a Romney presidency reversing the long-term statist trend, and despite the ever-present danger that any economic calamity that may happen under his watch will be another excuse to blame "free market policies," the need for a respite from Obama's policies takes priority. The dangers inherent in electing a statist republican is outweighed by the danger posed by a second Obama Administration.