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Republican presidential nominee and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (L) and U.S. President Barack Obama smile at the end of their first 2012 U.S. presidential debate in Denver October 3, 2012.   REUTERS/Brian Snyder    (UNITED STATES - Tags: POL
Sigh. All right, let's do this thing.

Summarizing the debate: The only memorable sound bite of the evening was that Mitt Romney had promised to fire a television bird. On policy matters, we learned absolutely nothing, and due to constant (and, truly, egregious) misstatements any non-politically-inclined person who tuned in could probably count themselves as actually less informed on the discussed issues than if they had not tuned in at all. On style both participants were one small notch above dreadful—if the Romney face budged from his trademark, grimacing smirk during the entire evening, I must have missed it, and the president often appeared to be debating as if Mitt Romney was not in the room at all. As for policy differences—the presumptive reason for having these excruciating but necessary things in the first place, unless we have now abandoned that notion, too—those were not only not in the room, they may not have even made it into the same state.

It is all right to be terse, in these debates. God help us, not every detail needs to be gone into. A few of substance would have been nice, though, and how we managed to have an entire presidential debate with less content than either candidate put into their own acceptance speeches is a bit beyond me. We did indeed manage it though, and your average viewer tuning into the evening could be forgiven for assuming that the primary message of the Mitt Romney campaign was that their polices were, in a nutshell, magical, and that the primary message of the Obama campaign was the supposition that they were not. According to the challenger, through mechanisms that were far too complex to be specified, and policies far too dull to burden the public with, certain magical things would happen, trillions of dollars would come from nowhere, all of the good policies of government (whatever those were) would be saved and all of the bad ones (whatever those were) would be nullified, and nobody need worry their pretty little heads about one stick of detail.

(Continue reading below the fold.)

Consider:

  • We learned that Mitt Romney would abolish Obamacare and replace it, apparently, with a new entity that had only the portions of Obamacare that the viewer liked. We learned that the Massachusetts health care plan was a model for the nation, but that it was simultaneously an outrage that the nation had attempted to model it. Why? No reason was given. "Obamacare" was bad because it was bad, but its contents are good, therefore something, therefore Magic. Apparently the Mitt Romney version of Obamacare will keep the newly passed protections against discriminating against preexisting conditions, which is new news to the Mitt Romney campaign; apparently it will also undo numerous health care reforms that have resulted in concretely reduced costs, which is news to his running mate.
  • We learned that Mitt Romney did not like having banks that are Too Big To Fail, but that he would simultaneously remove the only substantive checks on their power that were forced upon them after the economic collapse caused by that same unregulated largeness. What did he propose would solve the Too Big To Fail issue? Nothing—only to strip regulations from them. The resulting unspecified Magic would presumably either fix the rest or murder the economy in its sleep, but not even that was specified.
  • We learned simultaneously that Mitt Romney's plan to cut taxes will not cut taxes, but also that it will, depending on who is asking and when. He promised his point-blank specified tax cuts to the wealthy would not in fact cut taxes to the wealthy because they would be offset by Magic; the source of this Magic he was entirely unwilling to share, even going so far as to declare that the Magic would only be worked out once he became president and was negotiating with congress on the matter. This is a neat trick indeed, since he also was quite put out that anyone would not properly credit all that yet-to-be-worked-out Magic, currently valued at $0 trillion, against his already-worked-out $5 trillion in promised tax cuts. Raise your hand if you believe that fabulously wealthy Mitt Romney will sit down with the Republicans in the House and close financial loopholes on the fabulously wealthy—even though Mitt Romney has himself come out strongly in speech after speech against closing the most egregious of those loopholes, the ones directed at fabulously wealthy individuals like himself, declaring them necessary tools of the job creators. Ah, but he also declared that no taxes would be raised on any non-wealthy Americans either, thus neatly packaging every bit of balancing revenue into a box marked to be opened later, after the election, and won't that be a nice surprise.
  • We learned that there is a tax benefit for offshoring companies that Mitt Romney claimed to not know about. At no point during the debate was it pointed out that Mitt Romney had claimed this very same tax benefit himself.
  • We learned that we would not be cutting education under a Romney presidency—though he had earlier in the year complained at having too much of it, and though his running mate was chosen for, among other things, a brutality towards education and other funding that has gained him near-hero status to the social anarchist crowd—but at the same time that he would be summarily executing one of the nation's most cherished and omnipresent educational programs for the very young as an unnecessary, though comically minuscule, expenditure. That promise was, it should be noted, among the most substantive policy details granted to us during the entire evening; if we are going to be balancing the entire federal budget by cutting only things as small as educational puppetry, I cannot quite do the math on how many puppets will need to be laid off in order to accomplish that.
  • We learned that Romney would be creating the same bucketful of jobs that he has vowed at literally every other venue that would have him; once again, there is not even a guess how. Before, the jobs were attributed by his campaign to the tax cuts to be given to job creators; now that we have been assured that job creators will in fact not  be getting any tax cuts, because of Magic to be named later, we can only assume that the jobs now come from Magic as well. Given the outrage expressed that government would meddle in attempting to create any jobs in the energy sector (except for oil and coal, hallowed be thy names) at all, we are left even further into the dark as to where the Magic might be coming from—or even in what sector of the economy we can expect the Magic to take place.

I would be hard pressed to declare any party the winner of this first debate. Of the candidates, moderator, and audience, none of us got off very well; if the purpose of the debate was to elucidate differences between the two candidates it could better have been done by mailing out a small pamphlet and calling it done. On style, Romney began the night looking physically ill—looks ought to be secondary to facts, obviously, but his team might have considered putting more effort into concealing the dark saucers under his eyes or blending his complexion into something a bit less corpse-like. He did not avoid his trademark smirk or that odd, forced smile that constitutes his only apparent political emotion; from the beginning of the debate to the end, the peeved-looking grimace was his only constant. That said, Obama fared little better. If he had prepared for this debate, it did not show. At all. The moderator appeared to know less about each candidate's positions than almost any average citizen, or was at least operating under the apparent notion that he ought to pretend as such, so as not to offend anyone, and the audience—us, that is—bore the brunt of the whole silly show.

I had hoped that the debate season would mark at least a slight change of course from the last year of post-truth politics. We did not get that. We got nothing of substance at all, and we got a parade of contradicting policy assertions so implausible that they would not manage a passing grade at Hogwarts. For that, we should hold all parties accountable.

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