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Dunsmore: Style Over Substance

(Host) Most of the media pundits have declared Republican presidential candidate Governor Mitt Romney the victor in his first debate with president Barack Obama. Commentator Barrie Dunsmore was an analyst for ABC News during several presidential debates and this morning he grades the news media.

(Dunsmore) I knew the president was in trouble when virtually all of the liberal commentators on MSNBC made no attempt to hide their disappointment. With the polls looking good for the president and Governor Romney seemingly on the ropes after the revelations that he thought the 47 percent of Americans who paid no federal income taxes were a bunch of slackers, the MSNBC pundits were looking forward to a clean kill. Instead commentators across the ideological spectrum were finding it hard to curb their enthusiasm for Romney's energetic and aggressive attacks on Mr. Obama's policies.

My own view is that once again style was given far more attention than substance. Had I been critiquing the debate in real time I would have certainly noted that Obama was passive, that he was willing to let Romney make many charges without rebuttal. For instance Romney accused Obama of being unwilling to work with Republicans in the U.S. Congress. Romney claimed that as governor of Massachusetts he had been able to work with a heavily Democratic legislature to get things like his signature health care plan enacted. That cried out for Obama to respond,perhaps by reminding Romney that the Massachusetts legislature had not publicly stated that its top priority was to make Romney a one term governor - as Republican Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell had remarkably confessed was his party's goal with regard to President Obama. But the president just let that moment pass, along with others when he might have challenged the veracity of assertions Romney was making.

On matters of substance, Romney repeatedly denied that he was calling for a $5 trillion tax cut, much of which would go to the top 1 percent of Americans. In fact, Romney has a plan which has been out there for many months, which calls for cutting income tax rates by 20 percent.

By all credible economic analysis this would deprive the government of $5 trillion over ten years. But Romney argued his plan was revenue neutral, - that any deficit would be made up by tax reform. Yet, at the same time he repeatedly refused to list any of the details of tax deductions his plan would disallow - which may well need to include mortgage interest and state taxes in order to make up such vast sums.

However Romney's continued refusal to give any details of his tax plan got little media attention. Various fact checkers on television and especially in print did mention the discrepancies in Romney's income tax reform numbers. But not all Americans have access tofact checkers. Debate moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS, whom I know and like, certainly didn't act as fact checker in what was generally not a notable performance on his part.

There are two more presidential debates in which the media will again elevate style above substance. And if President Obama refuses to heed that message he does so at great political peril.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.
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