President Obama’s top aides didn’t deny on Thursday that Mitt Romney had a strong first debate. But by taunting fact checkers with a vague set of newly centrist claims, they believe the governor has left himself open for a major counteroffensive this week.
Obama senior strategist David Axelrod characterized Romney’s debate strategy as “effective in the short term, vulnerable in the long term.”
“Governor Romney came to give a performance and he gave a good performance and we give him credit for that,” he told reporters in a conference call. “The problem with it was that none of it was rooted in fact.”
He highlighted three areas in particular where the campaign planned to aggressively highlight Romney’s debate claims and press for more specifics: health care for the sick, tax breaks for the rich, and regulations on Wall Street.
Romney told the debate crowd, for example, that despite his promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act, “pre-existing conditions are covered under my plan.” But his campaign immediately walked the statement back afterwards, with Romney strategist Eric Ferhnstrom clarifying to TPM that it would be up to states to pass laws guaranteeing insurance coverage.
Axelrod called the pre-existing conditions pledge “an assertion that was so audacious the Romney campaign had to send someone into the spin room after the debate to say ‘Well, he really can’t do that.”
As for taxes, Obama appeared to be caught off guard by Romney’s repeated insistence that he would not cut taxes for the wealthy, a statement that contradicts independent studies showing even the most progressive version of his proposals would slash taxes for the wealthy while raising taxes on the middle class. Either that, or explode the deficit.
“Much of [Romney’s performance] was rooted in deception, from his very first answer when he tried to disown his $5 trillion dollar tax program which would skew to the wealthy and for which he has no way to pay,” Axelrod said.
Finally, he dinged the “serial evader” Romney being unable to “name one regulation that he would keep” after repealing Wall Street reform despite the governor’s professed support at the debate for regulating the finance industry.
“I think what you’re going to see from the campaign … is our effort to make sure that every voter out there understands exactly what the positions are that Romney danced around last night,” OFA press secretary Ben LaBolt told reporters.
As for Obama’s passive and much-maligned debate approach, Axelrod defended the president’s lack of red meat attacks as part of a plan to avoid pointed attacks.
“His choice was to talk about the things people were worried about in their own lives and that’s what he did,” he said.
That said, Axelrod hinted that Obama would mix things up more the next time around.
“We have to strike a balance,” he said. “You can’t allow someone to stand there and basically manhandle the truth about their own record and ideas … and not deal with that. So I’m sure that is a takeaway from this debate.”
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.