Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney turned in a strong performance in his first debate with President Obama Wednesday night, winning the contest according to most pundits and observers.
The 90-minute debate was virtually devoid of LGBT issues as the candidates clashed over broader economic issues and health care reform.
The most direct reference to LGBT issues came from Obama when he mentioned “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal as part of a list of his accomplishments that he achieved through bipartisan effort.
Obama said he’ll “take ideas from anybody, Democrat or Republican” to advance the middle class and that strategy is how the administration passed small business tax cuts, enacted three trade agreements and “how we repealed ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’”
Lanae Erickson, director of the social policy and politics program for the centrist advocacy group called Third Way, said she was pleased Obama included “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” among his bipartisan initiatives.
“Our country has come a long way when the only time an LGBT issue came up in the first presidential debate was as an example of bipartisanship,” Erickson said. “Obama used repealing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ in a list of things he had done to partner with folks across the aisle — it seems like that would have been unthinkable in 2004, or even 2008.”
Romney made an oblique reference to social issues. He talked about the first line of the Declaration of Independence and protecting “religious tolerance and freedom” in the country, which sometimes has been interpreted as code for support of social conservatives.
But the remark was incidental during the debate as moderator Jim Lehrer — whose performance was immediately savaged by critics — avoided social issues and posed questions on the economy, government programs and tax policy. Questions on LGBT issues weren’t raised — nor anything on other social issues, such as women’s rights or immigration.
Among the major points that came up included Romney saying he’d like to keep certain provisions in financial reform legislation known as Dodd-Frank, such as transparency and leverage limits. Romney also reiterated his pledge to repeal health care reform, but said he supports a policy that keeps insurance companies from discriminating against individuals with pre-exisiting conditions.
Obama and Romney also sparred over tax policy. Obama expressed support for tax cuts for the middle class because “we do best when the middle class is doing well” as he accused Romney of backing a policy that consists of tax cuts for the rich. Romney denied the charge, saying he doesn’t support tax cuts that add to the deficit, prompting Obama to quip, “Well, for 18 months he’s been running on this tax plan. And now, five weeks before the election, he’s saying that his big, bold idea is, ‘Never mind.’”
Jerame Davis, executive director of the National Stonewall Democrats, praised Obama for presenting a starkly different economic plan from Romney’s, saying the president went into more detail than the Republican candidate.
“Mitt Romney came to tonight’s debate prepared to take pot shots at President Obama while dodging questions about the specifics of his vague plans,” Davis said. “In contrast, President Obama addressed the American people directly and laid out a vision for the next four years. Romney’s choices — style over substance, attacks over proposals, platitudes over policies — speak to his character and the type of leader he would be.”
Jimmy LaSalvia, executive director of the gay conservative group GOProud, said Romney won the debate because he laid out greater detail in his proposals.
“Tonight was a very good night for Mitt Romney, a very bad night for Barack Obama, and a very good night for those Americans hungry for a new president and a new direction,” LaSalvia said. “Gov. Romney offered a clear contrast to the failed policies of the last four years. While Gov. Romney offered a new direction, President Obama couldn’t defend his record and offered little in the way of a vision for the future.
Romney also criticized Obama for taking $716 billion from Medicare to pay for expenses in other programs and pledged to reinstate those funds if elected president. This criticism, which has come before from the Republican side, has been roundly panned as a distortion — notably from former President Clinton during his speech at the Democratic National Convention — because the administration redirected those funds to close the donut hole under Medicare to provide prescription drugs for seniors.
John Aravosis, who’s gay and editor of AMERICAblog, took issue with what Romney had to say about Medicare, accusing the Republican candidate of being less than truthful.
“I didn’t like the fact that Romney seemed to trot out a lot of lies, particularly the claim that the president is ‘cutting’ Medicare when Romney’s VP, Paul Ryan, put the president’s Medicare proposal in his own budget,” Aravosis said. “But I also found it creepy that Romney kept saying his Medicare plan would exempt current seniors. If the plan is so good, then why not let current seniors ‘enjoy’ it too?”
Following the debate, many observers concluded Romney won. Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter admitted to CNN afterward that “Romney absolutely wins the preparation, and he wins the style points” while adding the Republican candidate’s proposed policies aren’t resonating with the American people.
Dan Pinello, who’s gay and a political scientist at the City University of New York, said Romney won the debate, but only by presenting positions that were different from those on which he campaigned previously.
“Romney had the more animated performance in the debate, while Obama was more cautious,” Pinello said. “But Romney appeared to depart from important policy positions he’d taken during the primary campaign, not to mention his departures from Paul Ryan’s budget. So the debate winner was the New Mitt Romney, a person different from the one who had been the Republican nominee prior to Oct. 3. The loser, however, appeared to be the Republican Party’s base.”
R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, attributed the perception that Romney came out on top to the lack of social issues in the debate.
“One thing came through loud and clear tonight, and we hope our fellow Republicans take note: In a domestic debate without divisive and distracting social issues, conservative ideas resonate, moderates and independents listen, and the Republican wins,” Cooper said.
But Lehrer bore the brunt of criticism from observers. The candidates often ignored him and kept talking after he informed them their time had expired and was seen as asking questions that were too general.
Aravosis said he’s “not thrilled” LGBT rights didn’t come up in a debate about domestic policy, although he acknowledged there’s an opportunity for them to come up in subsequent debates, adding of the debate, “Was there a moderator? I didn’t notice.”
Davis also said Lehrer’s “poor moderation overshadowed the night” as well as Romney’s behavior, but blamed the Republican candidate for being unfairly harsh in demanding more time to speak.
“Knowing that Romney bullied a gay teen during prep school helps to explain his churlish behavior at tonight’s debate,” Davis said. “Instead of looking presidential, Romney appeared to be nothing more than a belligerent schoolyard bully.”
The next debate will be between the No. 2 candidates on the tickets — Vice President Joseph Biden and Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan — and will take Oct. 11 in Danville, Ky. Following that, two more presidential debates will take place: a town-hall style debate on domestic and foreign policy in Hempstead, N.Y., on Oct. 16 and a foreign policy debate in Boca Raton, Fla., on Oct. 22.