A clear contrast for voters

John Rossitto watches the first presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney from a restaurant in San Diego Wednesday.

Wednesday night’s opening presidential debate, which was devoted to domestic issues, didn’t provide surefire solutions to serious problems facing our nation. But it did provide voters with a compelling contrast between the two candidates’ competing visions for the best path toward a brighter American future.

President Barack Obama expressed more confidence in Washington’s ability to spur an overdue economic resurgence — an approach that Republican nominee Mitt Romney called “trickle-down government.”

Mr. Romney expressed more confidence in the free market’s ability to bounce back if liberated from what he branded as onerous tax and regulatory policies — an approach that the president called “top-down economics.”

President Obama, reprising a familiar theme, cited his inheritance of a reeling economy. He also emphasized “data” from past administrations that supposedly support his approach for reviving the economy.

Mr. Romney seized on that opening with: “We talk about evidence. Look at the evidence of the last four years.”

And: “Going forward with the status quo is not going to cut it for the American people who are struggling today.”

But while the extended “jobless” nature of the sluggish recovery undermined Mr. Obama’s claims of economic resurgence, the president did fairly press Mr. Romney on how he would pay for proposed across-the-board tax reductions.

Mr. Romney repeatedly disputed the president’s characterization of his plan as an unsustainable $5 trillion tax cut. At one point the former Massachusetts governor argued: “Virtually everything he just said about my tax plan is inaccurate.”

Mr. Romney explained that he aims to offset his tax-rate reductions by eliminating some deductions and exemptions — with higher-income Americans and big businesses bearing most of that added burden.

But as the president noted, Mr. Romney “hasn’t identified which” loopholes he would close. Mr. Romney didn’t specifically identify them during Wednesday night’s debate, either.

However, Mr. Romney did offer this fair reminder of the vast gap between what Mr. Obama promised in 2008 and what he has delivered in the White House: “The president said he’d cut the deficit in half. Unfortunately, he’s doubled it.”

He also cited Mr. Obama’s accurate observation, four years ago, that raising taxes in a lousy economy is a bad idea.

Mr. Romney made a particularly pertinent point after the president defended his plan to raise taxes on incomes of more than $250,000. Mr. Obama said the increase would not be imposed on 97 percent of U.S. small businesses.

As Mr. Romney pointed out, the other 3 percent of small businesses — the ones making enough money to build significant payrolls — “employ one-quarter of the workers in America.”

He also cited a warning from the National Federation of Independent Businesses that the Obama tax-hike plan, if implemented, would force small businesses to cut 700,000 jobs.

Citing the fact that “small business pays that individual rate,” Mr. Romney said, “If we lower that rate, they will be able to hire more people.”

And soon after the president said he wanted the federal government to fund the hiring of “another 100,000 math and science teachers,” Mr. Romney pointed out, “You put $90 billion into green jobs ... That would’ve hired 2 million teachers.”

Fact checkers are still engaging in their own debates over some truth-stretchers from both candidates Wednesday night in Denver.

Mr. Obama’s $5 trillion tax-cut charge against Mr. Romney, and his claim of “five million jobs created” in his first presidential term, qualify for that list.

So does Mr. Romney’s declaration that he will “balance the budget.”

But after all, they are both politicians. And in general, Wednesday night’s debate was a civil, enlightening exchange of governing philosophies that should help inform the crucial choice voters must make on Nov. 6.

And with two more presidential debates and a vice-presidential debate to go, Americans can draw more insights on which man should win the White House — and which of two very different courses our nation should take.