By now, the debate about the debate centers around just how dramatically it has reset the race for president. Postdebate polls by CBS and CNN indicated a clear-cut victory for Republican Mitt Romney, whose debate performance showed voters a more sure-footed, substantive and plausible candidate than many had seen before.
It was good to see an almost entirely issues-based discussion. But repeated references to mind-numbing numbers -- Romney's alleged $5 trillion tax cut, or President Obama's alleged $716 billion cut to Medicare -- did not equate to clarification. Each candidate focused more on rhetoric than arithmetic and only proved former President Bill Clinton right: It is about math, as he said during his Democratic National Convention speech.
In the weeks ahead, at future debates and on the campaign trail, Romney and Obama must show how their numbers and their plans add up.
For instance, Romney was right and eloquent in framing public debt, and the burden it could place on future generations, as a moral issue. But he still needs to spell out which tax deductions and exemptions he would close in order to make his large reduction in tax rates revenue-neutral. He also needs to name, and sell, some of the painful spending cuts that the next president will need to ask of the American people if the nation's fiscal affairs are to be put right.
It's easy to take aim at public broadcasting's Big Bird. But what about the Air Force and other military spending, or a solid plan to curb costs on Medicare and other costly entitlement programs? Romney's repeated promises to protect the Pentagon, Medicare and other programs, coupled with his tax plan, have led independent analysts to predict even more red ink.
For his part, Obama obfuscated on how his second term would achieve the policy compromises the country needs in order to avoid a European-style fiscal crisis. That is, unless the new Congress is decisively controlled by Democrats, hardly a sure thing. Wednesday's hesitant counterpuncher needs to show himself a more forceful and persuasive leader in the remaining month of the campaign.
Obama also needs a much more full-throated defense of his policies, including and especially green energy: Leaders shouldn't just have their sights set on the next four years, but the next 40 -- and beyond. The president should not back down from his data-driven concern about climate change, and he should push for energy alternatives that may be part of an energy and environmental mitigation.
Obama did defend, rightly, the ($716 billion) reduction in Medicare reimbursements that is part of his signature health plan. In fact, Rep. Paul Ryan, Romney's running mate, had the same cut in his "road map" budget. And regarding the president's plan -- officially the Affordable Care Act -- Obama shrewdly decided to own the previously pejorative "Obamacare" label by calling it just that himself.
Romney, meanwhile, has apparently decided to own up more candidly to his own signature health care legislation from his time as governor of Massachusetts, part of a more moderate political persona revealed in the debate. This new Romney is welcome to stick around, especially given his encouraging words about prioritizing education. So now is the time for Romney to explain who he really is: The business-savvy pragmatist able to work across party lines? Or the self-described "severe conservative" he styled himself as during the Republican race for the nomination?
And Obama should burnish his own centrist credentials by making a stronger case that much of his plan was based on Romney's, and much of that was based on a market-driven idea from the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.
Both candidates rightly focused on the most immediate crisis facing the country: Jobs. But both need to move beyond gauzy rhetoric and toward more specifics. Obama's jobs plan has languished in Congress since he announced it. What will he do if reelected to get it passed? And while Romney derides "trickle-down government," he needs to better explain why his trickle-down economic policies would work better than previous efforts, as well as why austerity policies in America wouldn't result in the same jobless jump recently seen in Europe.
After next week's vice presidential faceoff, two more presidential debates await. If the candidates don't ask these hard questions of themselves, and each other, the moderator must do it. On Wednesday, Jim Lehrer gave both Obama and Romney a pass on most specifics. The stakes in the month ahead are much too high for more of that.