'Watching' the Presidential Debate With No Screen, Here's What I Heard

Michael Catalini
National Journal

Gather round for the tale of a fireside debate.

FDR isn’t in the White House anymore but here’s what tonight’s debate between President Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney sounded like, reported without the aid of any new-fangled screen -- flat, LCD, in HD, SD or otherwise.

(RELATED: I Watched the Debate With No Sound. Here's What I Saw.)

About halfway through a reply to a question from Mary Follano, who asked Romney about taxes and tax credits, the salient point about tonight’s debate was already established: Neither Romney nor Obama was willing to cede a moment when there was a point to make, an argument to rebut, a statistic to cite, or a moderator to excuse oneself from interrupting.

On substance, Romney’s reply sounded familiar, if also adjusted for a general election audience: He pledged to lower rates and simplify the tax code and said he would not “under any circumstances” reduce the share currently being paid by higher-income taxpayers.

Obama, too, offered familiar fare on the question. Taxpayers earning more than $250,000 should pay more, he said, before jabbing at the former Massachusetts governor. Romney and his “allies in Congress want tax breaks for the top 2 percent,” the president said.

“I’m sure you’ve got a reply,” CNN’s Candy Crowley, the moderator, said after the president finished, addressing Romney.

The audience laughed. You could tell they got the dynamic of the debate, that they knew what Romney was thinking: “You betcha, I have a reply.” And that’s how the debate went. For the record, Romney said he wasn’t interested in cutting taxes for wealthy people and that lowering rates on small businesses would make it easier to hire workers.

There were a handful of testy exchanges, starting with energy at the start of the debate. Romney questioned the effectiveness of Obama’s policies after a voter initially asked about gas prices.

“But that’s not what you’ve done in the past four years,” Romney said to the president on the in-the-weeds question of permits for energy companies on government land.  

You could hear Obama say, “Not true.”

Romney seemed to win for politeness. He frequently began questions with a thank you, not that the president seemed rude, only eager to make his point.

At a point toward the end of the debate, Obama got a big laugh from the audience after a voter asked about the candidates’ positions on immigration and Romney veered a bit off course, pressing the president to answer whether he knew how his pension was invested.  He seemed to be trying to make a point about investments in China.

“It’s not as big as yours,” Obama said about his pension comparing it to Romney’s. The crowd laughter dissipated whatever hope Romney had of scoring on the president’s retirement funds.