Analysis | Obama's Flat, Romney Fibs: The First Debate That Wasn't

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AUDIO: A muted reaction among college students to last night's debate in Denver to what was said by President Obama and former Governor Romney.  But expressions of outrage on social media about what wasn't said.  WNYC's Anna Sale was at the University of Denver and Caitlin Thompson, Editor of It's A Free Country was moderating our live chat. Click play above to listen to their analysis.

The much-anticipated first presidential debate Wednesday night didn’t feature the zingers or gotcha moments that media pundits zero in on and focus coverage around.

A barb-free debate would be fine if it had instead served a forum for the candidates to provide a more sober introduction of themselves and their ideas to the public. But it didn't do that either. We didn't gain new insights into either candidate, and they weren’t confronted with any challenges to their own platforms in ways that spurred deep reflection.

Sorely missing was the spirit of the 99 percent. Without it, the 90-minute back-and-forth felt notably unoccupied — and empty.

Strategically, this may be OK for the president, whose job is to keep a low profile and even keel while he plays the incumbent and maintains his lead for another month. It was his goal not to ignite a spark, because he doesn't want a fire.

Obama brought no energy. But Romney countered by bringing no facts.  

From his lie on Medicare (which has been repeatedly debunked) to his dodge on his tax plan to his avoidance of details on his plans for education, jobs and replacing Obamacare, Mitt delivered a fact-free performance. He knows facts aren't on his side, so why use them?

Sitting in between them was moderator Jim Lehrer who brought no structure to the proceedings. Every one of his questions boiled down to "How would you say you differ from your opponent on this next issue?"  

In his pursuit of highlighting differences, he handed the reins of the conversation to two people who aren't trustworthy in offering that assessment. Rather than open-ended questions that allow the two candidates to claim whatever ground they want in their effort to seem distinct, a moderator could easily have researched and raised the real differences.

The public deserves to hear those differences, not just spoken by the candidates themselves. And we deserve to hear each candidate challenged when they try to duck a position that makes them uncomfortable.  Romney's tax plan is on the record, as much as he denies it. Obama walks a delicate line around deficit reduction, and should be pushed on it.

We also deserve to hear where the candidates agree to the detriment of the public good. There was no discussion of foreclosures -- a crisis the president inherited and has struggled to solve.

Although Obama and Romney sparred over Dodd-Frank, neither was forced to discuss their approach to prosecuting financial crimes.  Romney attacked the notion of banks that are too big to fail, but neither candidate considered a reinstatement of Glass-Steagall or other ambitious measures to rein in the financial industry.  

A year ago, Occupy Wall Street forced a national consciousness about wealth disparity in America, and Romney has helped keep the discussion alive with comments about the 47 percent.  Obama argued for taxing our wealthiest, and Romney acknowledged that the 1 percent is doing fine. But beyond that, neither chose to engage the core issues behind economic stratification in America, or the persistent problems -- like the mortgage crisis -- that have crippled working families across our country.

It's not only on Jim Lehrer to raise these questions. He only has 90 minutes. But if one of the candidates chose to raise any of those topics, he would show how much the two of them differ.  Since neither of them will, however, it's up to voters to keep asking those questions in every forum we can find.

In the meantime, Romney needs to get ready for some serious fact-checking. And Obama should get himself a cup of coffee.