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Everything you need to know about the second presidential debate

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Oct. 17, 2012

Welcome to Wonkbook, Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas’s morning policy news primer. Send comments, criticism, or ideas to Wonkbook at Gmail dot com. To read more by Ezra and his team, go to Wonkblog.

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RCP Obama vs. Romney: Romney +0.4%; 7-day change: Romney +1.8%.

RCP Obama approval: 49.2%; 7-day change: +0.1%.

Intrade percent chance of Obama win: 64.2%; 7-day change: +0.1%.

Top story: Everything you need to know about the second presidential debate

Obama and Romney went head-to-head in last night’s town hall debate. Here’s what you need to know. “A far more aggressive President Obama showed up for his second debate with Mitt Romney on Tuesday, and at moments their town-hall-style engagement felt more like a shouting match than a presidential debate. The two men insistently challenged each other on the facts, talked over each other and stalked each other across the stage…The president, looking for an opportunity to recharge his campaign after a lackluster performance at their first debate two weeks earlier, contended that the Republican nominee's policies and values are extreme and out of touch with the concerns of the middle class. Romney, having rallied his supporters with his performance in Denver, was seeking to keep that momentum going. Neither one held back. The debate, which was framed by questions from the audience, ranged into topics that had not been broached in any depth at the earlier one — including immigration, women's issues, gun control and foreign policy.” Karen Tumulty and Philip Rucker in The Washington Post.

Read: The full transcript of the second presidential debate.

Watch: The full debate video or just The Washington Post’s two-minute highlight reel.

Shorter debate: Politico’s Kevin Cirilli points us toward the 10 best lines of the night.

The Fix’s Chris Cillizza explains: Winners and losers from the second presidential debate.

A debate, or a squabble? “He waited all of 45 seconds to make clear he came not just ready for a fight but ready to pick one…He tried to talk right over Mr. Romney, who tried to talk over him back. The president who waited patiently for his turn last time around forced his way into Mr. Romney's time this time. At one point, he squared off with Mr. Romney face to face, almost chest to chest, in the middle of the stage, as if they were roosters in a ring.” Peter Baker in The New York Times.

@EJDionne: Obama had night he needed, and put Romney on defense at many points. Romney had his moments but this time got testy and impatient.

Both candidates placed a strong focus on female voters. “[Romney and Obama are ] competing for a shrinking sliver of undecided voters, many of them women…The two took pains to fashion their arguments toward female voters, with the debate seeming at times directed entirely at them. Mr. Obama mentioned Mr. Romney's vow to cut government funding for Planned Parenthood at least four times…And Mr. Romney sought to broaden his appeal to women by softening his tone on reproductive issues.” Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg in The New York Times.

@BrendanNyhan: [M]y favorite debate in memory. Focused, crisp contrasts b/w cands. Classic referendum vs. choice counterpunching.

Survey says…Obama won the second debate. “Instant polls by CNN and CBS both found that President Obama came out ahead of Mitt Romney in the second presidential debate. CNN surveyed registered voters and found that 46 percent thought Obama won, while 36 percent thought Romney won. A CBS instant poll of undecided voters found 37 percent gave the advantage to Obama, while 30 percent sided with Romney. The remainder — 33 percent — thought it was a tie.” Donovan Slack in Politico.

@TobinCommentary: No question Obama was much stronger in this debate. Romney had his moments but not his best night.

But can you tweet it? How Twitter saw the debate.

@ezraklein: Romney won the first debate by a larger margin than I expected. Obama won the second debate by a larger margin than I expected.

Heading out of the debate, Romney campaign puts $12 million on the debate for a week of ad buys. “The Romney campaign, flush with cash from its impressive haul of $170 million last month, is reserving large quantities of airtime for the coming week. In one of his biggest ad buys of his campaign so far, Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee, has booked about $12 million worth of television advertising for a six-day rotation of commercials that will begin on Wednesday. The ad buy — timed to start the day after the second presidential debate — will cover both cable and broadcast television in nine states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. The biggest amounts will be spent in Ohio (about $2 million), Virginia ($1.5 million) and Florida (more than $3 million).” Jeremy W. Peters in The New York Times.

@DKThomp: Obama’s best debate moments are when he has a window to offer adapted prepared remarks.

A topic Romney and Obama missed: housing. “It is striking that what had long been the weakest part of the economy — the housing market — has been little featured in these debates. Housing is now making a modest recovery, one of the bright spots in economic growth.” Zachary A. Goldfarb in The Washington Post.

@shadihamid: We’ve had 4 hrs of debates and criminal justice & prison reform hasn’t been mentioned once. Think that says a lot abt our nat’l debate.

After some controversy as to her role, the moderator stepped up. “Candy Crowley is not ‘just holding the microphone’ as a former town hall-style debate moderator suggested she might. Rather, Crowley is attempting to referee two highly charged candidates and asking several follow-ups to the audience questions.” Krissah Thompson in The Washington Post.

Fact-checking the debate

Wonkblog to the rescue: Footnoting and fact-checking the debate.

On Romney’s 12-million-job promise: “Romney once again claimed that his economic plan would produce 12 million jobs. This sounds like a pretty bold statement…But, in fact, the number is even less impressive than it sounds. This pledge amounts to an average of 250,000 jobs a month… Moody's Analytics, in an August forecast, predicts 12 million jobs will be created by 2016, no matter who is president. And Macroeconomic Advisors in April also predicted a gain of 12.3 million jobs. In other words, this is a fairly safe bet by Romney, even if he has a somewhat fuzzy plan for action.” Glenn Kessler in The Washington Post.

On the $3,600 Obama tax cut: “Obama says he has cut taxes by $3,600. But he makes it sound like it is one big tax cut. The $3,600 figure is over four years -- $800 in each of 2009 and 2010 due to the Making Work Pay tax credit and $1,000 in each of 2011 and 2012 due to a Social Security payroll tax cut. Obama makes it sound as though workers got a $3,600 cut every year.” Glenn Kessler in The Washington Post.

On coal: “There's no question that new EPA regulations, including limits on mercury and other toxic emissions, and a proposal to curb greenhouse gas emissions on new power plants have made it harder to build new coal-fired power plants. But the lower price of natural gas, which costs less than a quarter of what it did four years ago, has undercut new coal plants just as much, if not more, than new federal regulations.” Juliet Eilperin in The Washington Post.

Explainer: Five bad policy ideas in tonight’s debate.

On oil and gas: “Is Gov. Mitt Romney telling the truth when he says oil and gas production is down on public land? Contrary to President Obama's assertions, Romney's telling the truth when he says, ‘Production of oil on public land is down 14 percent and production of gas on public land is down 9 percent.’” Juliet Eilperin in The Washington Post.

On outsourcing: “Obama said that Romney invested in companies that were ‘pioneers’ of outsourcing…Bain was prescient in identifying an emerging business trend — the movement of back-office, customer service and other functions out of companies that were willing to let third parties handle that business. Several of the companies [funded by Bain] grew into major international players in the outsourcing offshoring field.” Glenn Kessler in The Washington Post.

Rounding up the best commentary on the debate

BRUNI: Obama bares his teeth. “Of the various debate formats, the town-hall configuration is the one that's supposed to tamp down conflict and muffle fireworks. Not Tuesday night. From the opening minutes, Denver's pacifist was Long Island's pugilist…Above all, he found his ability to say ‘liar,’ or some approximation of it…For Obama, this debate was a sort of make-up exam: he muffed his first try — his preparation inadequate, his attitude grudging and his No. 2 pencil not nearly sharp enough — but his grade for the whole semester could still be saved if he buckled down and got it right the second time.” Frank Bruni in The New York Times.

@jonathanweisman: Debate coming down to what Romney did (assault weapons ban, shutting down coal plants) & what Obama didn’t (immigration, balanced budget)

KLEIN: Meanwhile, Romney struggled on substance. “The candidate who struggled on style also struggled on substance. But this time, that candidate was Romney…Romney is better at talking about what he'll spend than what he'll cut…Romney did have some good moments in this debate. Indeed, his best moments in this debate were far better than Obama's best moments in the first debate…Obama was the aggressor, and he broadly knew what he wanted to say. Romney spent most of the debate on defense, and he often didn't know what he wanted to say.” Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

@JonahNRO: Thank goodness this debate is in such a vital swing state and these voters are a pivotal bloc. Oh wait.

SIMON: Obama snaps back hard. “As well as Barack Obama did in his second presidential debate — and he did very well, indeed — you still have to ask yourself one question: Why didn't he do it in his first debate? If, 12 days ago at the University of Denver, Obama had delivered the same high-energy, on-target, putdown of Mitt Romney as he did at Hofstra University Tuesday night, think of where he would be today. He would not be trailing in the polls. He would not have the media circling over his head like vultures eyeing their next meal. He would not be trying to climb out of a hole, but would be moving forward instead.” Roger Simon in Politico.

@jodikantor: Obama is beginning to seem like he is… actually enjoying a debate???!

BARRO: Romney lost tonight, but so did America. “[S]etting aside the horse race, I found the substance of tonight's debate incredibly depressing, because neither candidate made a remotely convincing case that he can fix America's economy…Romney repeatedly talked about his ‘five-point plan,’ which is a rehash of Bush-era policies. It has no content aimed at the specific problems of our time: weak demand, high unemployment and a still-troubled housing market. Obama touted his misguided fetish for manufacturing and green jobs, as though what America needs is the federal government deciding which industries should grow…Romney and Obama fought with each other a lot tonight, but the subtext of their messages was sadly similar: If elected, they will sit around and hope the economy gets better.” Josh Barro in Bloomberg.

@RichLowry: this is the crux of the debate–obama says romney policies have been tried and failed; romney says obama policies have been tried and failed

SARGENT: How Obama won. “Obama accomplished something really important: He got himself out of the box he'd blundered into during the first debate. As Dem pollster Stan Greenberg put it, Obama last time came across as the candidate of the not-good-enough status quo, rather than laying out a substantive second term change agenda of his own. By stressing his economic plan more directly than last time, by arguing that more jobs will be created in his second term, and by placing a heavy emphasis on our need to invest in alternative energy sources, he reoriented his argument towards the future, and framed it in a way that will appeal to independents and undecided voters.” Greg Sargent in The Washington Post.

@TPCarney: Now Romney has a strong litany of clear Obama failures to counter Obama’s strong litany of accomplishments. This is a varsity debate.

SEIB: The campaign arc changes once more. “President Barack Obama roared. And Mitt Romney roared back. The two men seeking the White House engaged in what was surely the most lively and least decorous debate ever seen in an American presidential campaign Tuesday night. It came in a town-hall format, but the voters spread out before the two men were really just props for an argument that required only the men on stage…[T]he president even found a better formulation for his complaint that Mr. Romney isn’t giving details of how he’d pay for his plan for an across-the-board tax cut. It was a formulation that engaged both Mr. Romney and the audience simultaneously. During your business career, the president said to Mr. Romney, ‘you wouldn’t have taken such a sketchy deal.’ Turning to the audience, he declared, ‘And neither should you.’” Gerald F. Seib in The Wall Street Journal.

@jonathanweisman: Conservatives aren’t about to melt down like liberals did after 1st debate. Will make big difference in fallout next days.

PONNURU: A draw, which means Obama won. “Romney, it seemed to this conservative, missed opportunity after opportunity to hit back…Obama missed a crucial opportunity too: to explain what his second term would be like, which he could have taken on any of the numerous occasions when Romney charged it would be as disappointing as his first. That seems to me like the missed opportunity on which Obama's campaign is built. I'd call this one a draw. If the first debate had looked like this one, Romney would still be trailing in the polls. But it didn't, he isn't, and I don't think this one will put Obama back to where he was before the debates started.” Ramesh Ponnuru in Bloomberg.

@bdomenech: I think Obama was better in this debate but still fell short of making the case for a second term. Romney, though, flubbed key FP question.

LOWRY: Where Romney erred. “President Obama was much better than last time, not surprisingly. He got in all the expected hits on Romney, and at times threw out more things at once than Romney could plausibly respond to, unless he wanted to spend the entirety of his time in rebuttal mode. Romney, on the other hand, wasn't quite as good two weeks ago. I think he's at his weakest as a performer when he gets a little too worked up and shows too much concern with the rules. He did both tonight…The big take-away from the debates so far — and the problem President Obama has — is that Mitt Romney has established himself as a plausible alternative with a plausible plan.” Rich Lowry in National Review Online.

@CitizenCohn: Obama spin: Our guy won. Romney spin: Debate won’t make much difference. Pretty much the opposite of Denver.

Top op-eds

ORSZAG: Slower growth in health costs saves billions. “The U.S. continues to experience a very marked slowdown in the growth of health-care costs, despite some widely misinterpreted new reports…National health expenditures rose just 3.8 percent from August 2011 to August 2012, according to an Oct. 11 report from the Altarum Institute. And Medicare spending increased by only 3.2 percent in the fiscal year ending in September 2012, according to the Congressional Budget Office…These are remarkably low growth rates. Consider that over the past four decades Medicare spending increased by more than 10 percent a year…There is good reason to think that lower growth will persist even after the economy turns around.” Peter Orszag in Bloomberg.

GOODMAN: A better solution for pre-existing conditions. “Out of a population of more than 300 million, some 82,000 have the problem that was cited as the principal reason for spending $1.8 trillion over the next 10 years and in the process turning the entire health-care system upside down…[W]hen insurers are forced to charge the same premium to all applicants, regardless of expected health-care costs, prices will be wrong for everyone--and both buyers and sellers of health-care policies will have perverse incentives…On health insurance generally, Mitt Romney surely has the better approach…[Risk pools are] a cheaper and less destructive solution to the problem of pre-existing conditions.” John C. Goodman in The Wall Street Journal.

OLIVER: The coming water anarchy. “[T]he Supreme Court could thrust Congress into the middle one of the biggest no-win fights yet in this age of gridlock — a simultaneous renegotiation of some of the nation's most critical interstate water access agreements…How did so much of the country's future come to hinge on an obscure litigation between two states?…In short, if the Supreme Court decides not to hear this case, Congress will have no choice but to engage in what could easily become as many as two dozen massively contentious negotiations on which will hinge the futures of numerous metropolitan areas and other communities, as well as industries, agricultural regions and Native American tribes.” James M. Oliver in Politico.

CROOK: The economy is getting weaker. Funny that, wish we could do something. “The U.S. presidential election is focused so fiercely on the economy, in fact, that actual policy making has been shut down for months. Apparently it's not possible to worry about the economy and do something about it at the same time. Here's an odd thing, though. Despite the apparent concentration on economic affairs, an important fact about global economic conditions appears to have been missed: Things are getting worse…The world economy isn't healing. It's getting sicker. Let's be clear who's to blame. Europe and America stand betrayed not just by their leaders of the day, but by their entire political class.” Clive Crook in Bloomberg.

SUNSTEIN: The Constitution as prop for conservative jurists. “In the context of affirmative action, some of the nation's most important and distinguished conservative legal thinkers, including Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, appear to have abandoned their own deepest beliefs about how to interpret the Constitution…Here is the great paradox: None of the conservative justices asked a single question about whether affirmative-action programs are consistent with the original meaning of any provision of the Constitution…[W]ell-known historical work has strongly suggested that when passed by Congress in 1866 and ratified by the states in 1868, the 14th Amendment did not compel colorblindness.” Cass R. Sunstein in Bloomberg.

Tasty interlude: Reviewing the White House’s home-brew beer recipe.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail me.

Still to come:does income inequality hurt growth; study questions value of doctor checkups; why redistricting is the next big wonk topic; problems in natural gas; and “binders full of women.”


Income inequality: Does it take a toll on growth? “The yawning gap between the haves and the have-nots — and the political questions that gap has raised about the plight of the middle class — has given rise to anti-Wall Street sentiment and animated the presidential campaign. Now, a growing body of economic research suggests that it might mean lower levels of economic growth and slower job creation in the years ahead, as well. ‘Growth becomes more fragile’ in countries with high levels of inequality like the United States, said Jonathan D. Ostry of the International Monetary Fund, whose research suggests that the widening disparity since the 1980s might shorten the nation's economic expansions by as much as a third…They found that in rich countries and poor, inequality strongly correlated with shorter spells of economic expansion and thus less growth over time.” Annie Lowrey in The New York Times.

Middle-class jobs aren’t paying middle-class wages. “[A] new paper by Josh Mitchell and Austin Nichols at the Urban Institute [finds that w]hile middle-income people were no likelier to lose their jobs, those that did become unemployed saw bigger pay cuts once they got another job than people at the top or bottom of the income scale…You see a similar phenomenon in health insurance coverage. Mitchell and Nichols find that middle-income people were the likeliest group to lose health insurance in the 2008 panel.” Dylan Matthews in The Washington Post.

Economists expect tax hikes next year. “What do economists think will happen with the fiscal cliff? Opinion is highly divided, but the vast majority can agree on one thing: Taxes will go up. The National Association of Business Economists surveyed a group of economists at leading corporations and financial analysis firms, along with a handful in government. A full 59 percent believe that the payroll tax holiday is done for, meaning the average household would face a $1,000 tax hike. But opinion is more divided when it comes to the Bush tax cuts: 36 percent believe they'll expire for high-income earners but not lower-income ones (what the Democrats want), while 55 percent believe that all of the Bush tax cuts will be extended for another year (what Republicans are demanding).” Suzy Khimm in The Washington Post.

We aren’t borrowing from China as much as we once did. “The U.S. government has become less reliant on the Chinese to fund its gaping budget hole over the past two years, even as the political rhetoric over borrowing from China has heated up. An enduring meme of the 2012 political campaign — and the battle over the ballooning federal debt in Washington — is that the government increasingly needs China to lend it money to meet its obligations. But new data released Tuesday showed that taxpayers owe China 10 percent less than they did a year ago, even though the federal government has continued to borrow huge amounts of money overall. China also owns a smaller percentage of the U.S. debt than in the past, with the slack picked up by other countries such as Japan, as well as American investors.” Zachary A. Goldfarb in The Washington Post.

The U.S. has weathered this recession a lot better than did other countries. “Whether you are better off today than in 2009 may not be the most useful question to ask about an economy emerging from its most severe downturn in 80 years. A more illuminating question is how we have done relative to other countries that were caught in the global financial cataclysm. By that standard, economic growth in the United States has done surprisingly well.” Eduardo Porter in The New York Times.

Musical interlude: The Doobie Brothers performing “What a Fool Believes” in 1979.

Health Care

What’s a doctor checkup worth? Not much, it seems. “General medical checkups for healthy adults may not be as beneficial as people tend to think, according to new a study, raising questions about whether spending on preventive services should be more focused on tests shown to be effective. The paper is believed to be the first large review of existing studies to conclude that general health checks — the sort of screening done in typical annual physicals — don’t affect rates of death and disease…The nine studies that reported the number of patient deaths in the follow-up period didn’t show any effect on overall mortality, or on deaths specifically from heart disease, stroke or cancer. There was limited information on whether checkups were effective in preventing disease, but the two big trials that did measure prevention didn’t show an effect.” Shirley S. Wang in The Wall Street Journal.

Will paying for quality in Medicare backfire? “Steffie Woolhander, Daniel Ariely and David Himmelstein sound a note of caution in Health Affairs, looking at how previous efforts at pay for performance efforts, in other sectors, have backfired…The evidence on pay-for-quality in the health-care sector is decidedly mixed. Health-care systems in Massachusetts have shown significant savings using these kind of models. Other experiments have gone less well.” Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

Domestic Policy

Redistricting: a wonky issue with really, really important consequences. “Think Congress is too partisan? You ain't seen nothin' yet. The once-in-a-decade redistricting process has taken the nation's already-polarized congressional map and — you guessed it! — made it even more polarized, says a new study from the nonpartisan election reform group Fair Vote. According to the group's analysis, 89 of 435 congressional districts performed between 46 percent and 54 percent for each major political party in recent years. In other words, those were the real swing districts.

But under the new congressional map created by redistricting…there are just 74 districts that fit that ‘swing district’ bill…There is an emerging movement to put that power in the hands of nonpartisan redistricting commissions. But for now, partisan politics still dominates the drawing of districts.” Aaron Blake in The Washington Post.

How tax reform could equal stronger growth. “In large measure, what you think about the tenability of Mitt Romney's tax plan depends on what you think his tax reform proposal can do for economic growth…[M]odels suggest that revenue-neutral tax reform could actually have a significant impact on growth in the long-run. The most influential paper on this subject is by Auerbach, David Altig, Lawrence Kotlikoff, Kent Smetters and Jan Walliser. Romney's campaign has cited the paper as support for his tax plan, but the research considers much more dramatic tax policy action than anything Romney has proposed. The real stars here are the consumption taxes. A flat VAT increases long-run growth by 9.4 percent, and an X tax does so by 6.4 percent…Rice University's John Diamond, whose analysis of the Romney tax plan has been touted by Rosen and other supporters, found that base-broadening tax reform, if revenue neutral before growth is taken into account, could spur a 6-point boost in the economy.” Dylan Matthews in The Washington Post.

The Postal Service just maxed out its ‘credit card.’ “The U.S. Postal Service in September hit its $15 billion borrowing limit from the U.S. Treasury for the first time in its history, leaving the agency with only the revenue it takes in from selling stamps, shipping and other services to cover its operating costs. The Postal Service has added $2.4 billion to its debt since June 30, pushing the agency to its borrowing cap.” Eric Morath in The Wall Street Journal.

Another reason to love or hate the Internet interlude: Mitt Romney says “binders full of women.” Within the hour, a Tumblr meme emerges.


Another Solyndra? “Big news for those who like political spats over energy policy: A123 Systems, an electric-car-battery manufacturer that received $249 million in federal grants as part of the stimulus bill, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Tuesday…By driving down the cost of batteries, the Energy Department was hoping to make electric cars affordable and widespread. But the plan hasn't gone entirely smoothly.” Brad Plumer in The Washington Post.

Dept. of Energy delays decision on natural-gas export license. “The Obama administration punted a decision on whether to prevent a liquefied natural gas (LNG) export license, saying it needs more time to review a complaint that an environmental assessment for the plan did not go far enough. The Department of Energy (DOE) said it needs to review a complaint regarding a conditional permit granted to Cheniere Energy…The administration has said analyzing fragmented global natural-gas markets is complex, and has cautioned against expanding LNG exports too quickly before the impacts are known.” Zack Colman in The Hill.

From boom to bust in natural gas. “The U.S. shale boom is turning into a bust for companies that provide drilling services as the number of rigs seeking natural gas has fallen faster than any time in the last 24 years. The overall U.S. onshore rig count has dropped 9 percent this year, seeing the most sustained declines since the recession-led plunge in 2009. Those declines, caused in part by the gas industry's shift to oil production, are eating away demand for drilling services and worsening a shale-equipment glut that's pushing down prices.” David Wethe in Bloomberg.

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.