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2 Writers Comment On Presidential Debate


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep with Renee Montagne.

Let's look at last night's presidential debate from two strong points of view. We invited two writers whose work we follow, conservative Jonah Goldberg of National Review and liberal Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine, to join us.

Gentlemen, good morning.

JONATHAN CHAIT: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Each chose one moment he found meaningful. And we're going to start with Jonathan Chait's moment, when Mitt Romney spoke of having a five-point plan for the economy last night. President Obama responded.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Governor Romney doesn't have a five-point plan, he has a one-point plan. And that plan is to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules. That's been his philosophy in the private sector, that's been his philosophy as governor, that's been his philosophy as a presidential candidate.

INSKEEP: Why is that a meaningful statement to you, Jonathan Chait?

CHAIT: You know, Obama just had so much trouble summarizing his pitch against Romney in the first debate. In this one, he really had it boiled down. This was obviously a practiced line and a practiced frame, and he was able to shove so much of what people know about Romney into this frame - Romney's business career, his personal low tax rate and much of his policy agenda. This was a kind of a clear simple idea he finally arrived on to summarize his criticism of Romney.

INSKEEP: And he repeated this in various ways throughout the debate. But, of course, Romney was pushing back and responding. In fact, he ended by saying he's standing for 100 percent of the people. How effective was he?

CHAIT: Well, that was unfortunate for Romney, because he said that and then Obama got the last word and that was the end of the debate. So Obama was able to point out that what he said was behind closed doors, which implies - correctly, I think - that it's more likely to reflect his actual views, what he said about the 47 percent behind closed doors, as opposed to what he says in public about the 100 percent.

INSKEEP: Jonah Goldberg of National Review is listening in. What do you think about that as a central theme for the president last night?

JONAH GOLDBERG: I think it might've been a good central theme had he come up with it a long time. I don't know that it didn't get lost in the miasma of the actual debate last night. Interestingly, I think, everyone agrees that Obama won by a small margin. The instant polls from CNN have him winning by about seven or eight points.

But Romney still won on the economy and the deficit by big double-digit numbers. And I think that in that sense, while Romney overall didn't do fantastically well last night, on the issues that voters actually vote on, I think he actually came out ahead.

INSKEEP: Jonathan Chait?

CHAIT: I don't know. I haven't broken down the polls of how it played. I think - historically, it seems like the reaction reverberates over a number of days. And the instant reaction doesn't always reflect the way the polls are going to play. The fact that Obama won by seven or eight points isn't totally significant to me.

What's significant to me is that conservatives are saying maybe it was a draw or Obama won a little bit. And liberals are saying that Obama won handily. And I think that reflection is probably going to reverberate.

INSKEEP: OK. Now, Jonah Goldberg of National Review also chose a bit of tape from President Obama that he wanted to focus on. Let's listen to that.


OBAMA: What I've also said is for above 250,000, we can go back to the tax rates we had when Bill Clinton was president. We created 23 million new jobs. That's part of what took us from deficits to surplus. It will be good for our economy and it will be good for job creation.

INSKEEP: Jonah Goldberg, does something bother you about that?

GOLDBERG: Yeah. I mean, this is part of my larger gripe about the general way Obama has been making his argument. And Bill Clinton has done this too. They make it sound as if there's this causal relationship. That Bill Clinton raised taxes and we created jobs.

And President Obama often says it this way, as if, A) there was a tax increase and then B) we created jobs, leaving out the fact that, you know, Bill Clinton had nothing to do with the tech boom, had nothing to do with the creation of the Internet, had nothing to do with these vast changes in the economy that came about because of technological change and leaves out the actual policies that Bill Clinton had for turning around the economy, which did not really have, primarily, to do with the tax cuts.

And it's of a piece with President Obama's claim that George Bush's tax cuts somehow led to the financial crisis, which, you know, even the Washington Post fact checker doesn't think is true. The official inquiry into the financial crisis doesn't even talk about it.

This obsession with whether or not tax cuts or tax hikes will get the economy moving, from President Obama, just strikes me as one of these fallacies that Mitt Romney frankly is not very good at rebutting.

INSKEEP: Jonathan Chait, was the president oversimplifying recent history to justify his tax policies?

CHAIT: No, I don't think he was saying what Jonah was saying. I think he was saying, first of all, that increasing taxes on the rich are not incompatible with higher growth. In fact, if you have to do it, you can do it and it won't stop growth. That when Clinton promised to bring down the deficit by raising taxes on the rich, conservatives insisted it would strangle the recovery - and they were wrong. And they hoped that cutting taxes for the rich would promote investment and growth under Bush, and they've also been wrong.

Number two, the investment tech move was helped in part by bringing down the deficit and no longer crowding out private investment, which made more investment capital available for those industries.

INSKEEP: OK. Jonathan Chait and Jonah Goldberg, thanks to you both for getting up early this morning.

CHAIT: Thank you.

GOLDBERG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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