Romney's big lies and dodges, as identified by Axelrod and by policy director James Kvaal, are familiar. There's the Medicare lie, the Obamacare dodge, the not-cutting-education lie, and oh so many others. Romney gave, Axelrod said, "a very vigorous performance but one that was devoid of honesty. So today, the day after, I think the question for you [in the press], for the American people, is really one of character" and whether a performance and a campaign so dependent on falsehoods earns the trust needed for the presidency. This press call is one step in the Obama campaign's efforts to hold Romney accountable and force him to justify the things he said.
Axelrod noted that, when asked before the debate what he anticipated, he said he expected Romney to do well, because "he's a very good performer, partly because he's untethered from the truth." So it's not surprising that we learned that Romney will say anything, which makes him effective in the short term but vulnerable in the long term. "He's shown a propensity to mortgage the long term for the short term," something we saw in the primaries.
Romney's polished, aggressive performance contrasted, according to Axelrod, with Obama "view[ing the debate] as an opportunity to talk to the American people" and to answer serious questions honestly. The outcome of the debate may prompt the campaign to reconsider the president's debate strategy to address the sheer volume of Romney's lies, but importantly, Axelrod pointed out, while snap polling showed Romney overwhelmingly winning the debate, that win did not seem to be translating into much increase in support for Romney's candidacy.
Extended notes from the call are below the fold.
These are my notes taken during the call; they are as closely paraphrased as my typing speed permitted, and I've tried to indicate where I missed anything substantial.
I entered the call a couple minutes late and came in on Axelrod going through some of Romney's biggest lies, from the $5 trillion tax cut to Medicare where he "knowingly tried to deceive seniors on his plan. All of you who travel on the road with Gov. Romney know he just a few weeks ago stood up and said we don't need any more teachers. Last night he couldn't be more enthusiastic about teachers." Romney suggested he could repeal Obamacare and still guarantee coverage for people with preexisting conditions, an assertion so audacious he had to send someone to spin room to admit it wasn't true. A "very vigorous performance but one that was devoid of honesty. So today, the day after, I think the question for you, for the American people, is really one of character" and whether a candidacy that is so fundamentally rooted in hiding the facts from the American people, in deception, is the basis of trust you would assign the presidency on. We're going to hold him accountable and make him justify as I hope you will make him justify those points.
Many of you asked what I anticipated before the debate. I said I expected him to do well. "He's a very good performer, partly because he's untethered from the truth." Not surprisingly what we learned is that he'll say anything. That makes him effective in the short term but vulnerable in the long term. He's shown a propensity to mortgage the long term for the short term. We saw that in the primaries. [Gives examples I missed.]
There are some things he didn't walk away from. He didn't walk away from his commitment to privatizing Medicare, turning it into a voucher system. He didn't walk away from his pledge not to ask for one additional dollar for deficit reduction from anyone, no matter how wealthy.
The CBS poll showed very marginal gains among undecided voters. If voters break that way he can't make up the gap that we see in battleground states. We see the same in focus groups. People are willing to give him credit for his performance but that didn't translate into support for his candidacy. A lot of the reason is an issue of trust. People understand the president is speaking honestly and openly, and they have a great many questions about Romney and I don't think he helped himself there with his serial evasions and deceptions.
Next James Kvaal, the policy director, spoke, running through fact-checks of Romney's major lies.
Axelrod returned while questions were being queued up, noting that Romney's central claims were well delivered but fraudulent and that's going to be hard to sustain over the coming weeks. One promise Romney did meet was not being constrained by fact-checkers.
Question from Reuters: Does anything about what happened last night change the strategy, will president do more debate prep, why didn't he say the things you're saying now?
Axelrod: He made a choice to answer the questions that were asked and to talk to the American people about what we need to do to move forward and not to get into serial fact-checking with Romney, which can be an exhausting, never-ending pursuit. But we're going to take a hard look at this and make some judgments about where to draw the line. As far as strategy, as with sports you evaluate after every contest and you make adjustments and I'm sure we will. Probably won't add huge amounts of prep time, but rather make these strategic judgments.
Question from the Washington Post: The president's performance was listless, distracted, annoyed at times. Will you be talking to him about that and how will you explain his physical performance?
Axelrod: I'm not a theater critic. I can only tell you the president viewed it as an opportunity to talk to the American people, perhaps not as much as Romney did as a performance. I readily concede that's not his strong suit and I'm sure he'll consider his approach moving forward, but he's eager for next debate. This was his first chance to see Romney's routine up close, though he had reviewed some Republican debates but not [Axelrod cuts off and does not return until the next question].
Question from NBC's Andrea Mitchell: Whether you have rethought strategy of not bringing up women's issues or the 47 percent or so many issues that have worked so well in campaign?
Axelrod: First of all, a lot of those issues are well known to the public and again I think the president was focusing on the questions that were asked. Plainly he didn't come as focused and intent as Romney on dropping particular lines and his interest was in honoring the American people with honest answers to serious questions that were being asked. I understand particularly our supporters would have liked him to enter into the record Bain, tax returns, 47 percent, but his choice was to talk about things people were worried about in their own lives and that's what he did.
Question from the New York Times: How do you see the choices these judgments will have to address?
Axelrod: ... this was the first chance for the president to see how Romney operates firsthand and you have to make some adjustments for the fact that he is kind of a serial evader and artful dodger and that makes it more challenging. The thing I think, and this relates to last question as well, is the president hopes to avoid a situation where two politicians are standing there insulting each other instead of offering ideas for the future of the country. But you have to strike a balance, you can't let someone basically manhandle the truth and not deal with that, so I'm sure that is a takeaway from this debate.
Question from Huffington Post's Sam Stein: Many Democrats were perplexed by Obama saying he and Romney have similar positions on Social Security. Is that really your belief?
Axelrod: I'm not sure what Romney's position really is, I know what his running mate's position is and I presume Romney has a similar interest since he's called Ryan the intellectual leader of the party. The president wouldn't support a voucher system etc as they would. His interest in the long run is making sure Social Security is there and secure. It's a problem that needs to be dealt with in the longer term. Medicare is a shorter term concern and that's why we need aggressive reform to bring down cost of health care. I don't know exactly what Romney's position is so I can just tell you the president's position is we need to maintain Social Security and Medicare.
Q from the AP: Does the president believe he was crisp and coherent?
A: He got his ideas across and drew distinctions on issues like education and taxes. I think he got those distinctions across and if you look at some of the data and research, both the president and Romney raised their numbers on a range of measures during debate—on who's a strong leader and on having a clear plan for the future, both improved numbers, the president even more than Romney, on understanding problems of everyday people both did, the president obviously had high numbers there to start. I think there's a fascination with Romney's performance. Reality is different. The obvious test is how this impacts on voters across the country. Mixed results in focus groups. I leave it to others to critique but I can just judge from how voters out there reacted and while Romney was very crisp, both candidates got points across and got something out of the debate. [Clarity here is suffering both from my transcription skills lagging and Axelrod sounding like he may have looking at a list of numbers and drawing from them as he spoke.]