Dogs that Didn’t Bark in Tonight’s Presidential Debate

In addition to Willow, there were two major dogs that didn’t bark during tonight’s presidential debate. First, even though the debate was supposed to focus on domestic policy, neither the moderator nor the candidates ever focused on some of the most important domestic issues on which the president can have a big impact: issues such as judicial nominations (not discussed at all) and regulatory agencies (only mentioned in passing). Instead, they spent a lot more time talking about short term economic performance, which presidents have only very limited leverage over. That is likely because voters who know little about politics and policy tend to focus on the wrong issues because they often don’t understand what a president can actually control and what he (mostly) can’t.

Second, although Romney predictably spent a lot of time attacking Obamacare, he said absolutely nothing about the individual health insurance mandate, which remains hugely unpopular – far more so than any other part of the law. Even when Obama waxed eloquent about the evils of insurance companies, Romney didn’t play the obvious gambit of pointing out that the President is the one who passed a law that forces millions of people to buy insurance company products that they don’t want, after saying in 2008 that “[f]orcing people to buy health insurance [in order to provide them with health care] is like forcing the homeless to buy a house to eliminate homelessness.”

Why did Romney let this opportunity slip by? The answer is obvious. If he had attacked the individual mandate, Obama could have countered by noting that Romney’s own Massachusetts health care plan also includes an individual mandate, and Obamacare was modeled on Romneycare. Even as it stood, Obama was able to point out (correctly) that his health care plan was modeled on Romney’s and designed by some of the same advisers.

Overall, Romney did reasonably well in tonight’s debate. If the CNN commentators I’m watching are to believed, he even outperformed Obama. But by nominating the father of Romneycare, the GOP cost itself an opportunity to attack the most politically vulnerable part of Obamacare. That’s what happens when, as economist Bryan Caplan once put it, the Republicans nominate the John the Baptist of Obamacare to run against the program’s Jesus Christ.

UPDATE: I have made a few minor stylistic revisions to this post.

UPDATE #2: A CNN poll of people who watched the debate shows that 67% thought Romney won, compared to only 25% who picked Obama. My own impression is that the two candidates were pretty even. But I’m obviously not the the average swing voter whom they were trying to appeal to. That said, surveys have repeatedly shown that swing voters (like most of the rest of the public) hate the individual mandate. Other things equal, the GOP would be better off if they had a candidate who was able to attack it.