Parsing the Presidential Debate
We are pleased to have this analysis of the first presidential debate from Robert David Sullivan. You can read his preview of the debates here:
Note: I wrote the following (except for the last paragraph) without looking at any tweets, instant analysis, or other media coverage. But I seem to have backed into the consensus view that Obama gave a surprisingly tentative performance. Andrew Sullivan has a round-up of reactions here; the best-case scenario for Obama is that the fact-checkers are kinder to him than the bloggers have been over the past couple of hours. -- Oct 4, 12:59 a.m.
So did you change your vote because of Mitt Romney’s accusation that the Dodd-Frank banking-regulation law didn’t define “qualified mortgage”?
Political debates seem to be either overly personal or excessively detailed, and last night’s presidential showdown fell into the latter category. Moderator Jim Lehrer stuck to policy-wonkish (but not very illuminating) questions, and the focus on ledger sheets seemed to give Romney more confidence, while frustrating incumbent Barack Obama.
Romney said that deficit reduction is a “moral issue,” but it was striking how little attention was paid to morality in the debate. For example, the discussion of health care was largely about cost-efficiency. Obama mentioned the phenomenon of non- or underinsured families going bankrupt because of unexpected medical costs, but it was with a dispassionate demeanor that Bill Clinton or Joe Biden probably wouldn’t even be capable of. Neither candidate directly addressed the issue of whether basic universal health care should be a goal of the government, federal or otherwise – partly because Lehrer didn’t bring it up. I suspect this is a question that most political journalists consider settled (Democrats say yes, Republicans say no), but there would have been great value in hearing each candidate justify – or duck – their party’s position.
Education was treated similarly. Romney’s championing of the free market was softer and more implicit here, with “freedom of choice” in primary and secondary schools raising the unanswered question of what happens to children stuck with the wrong choice. The issue of equity in the classroom, and its role in providing economic opportunity for all, was not brought up by Lehrer or Obama.
In addition to the economic effects of the Affordable Care Act (“ObamaCare”), there was a lot of attention to tax policy and debt reduction. The first question from Lehrer was about unemployment, but, once again, there was no philosophical discussion of how much of a priority job creation should be for the federal government. Is it as important as reducing the debt, or holding down inflation, and what happens if these goals conflict? Romney’s jobs plan was unsurprisingly vague (improve education and “champion small business”) and small-bore (reducing “overhead” by consolidating job training programs), and Obama seemed too intimidated to point out that unemployment has been exacerbated by the steady reduction of public-sector jobs.
There were no questions about the stimulus package of Obama’s first year or the “bailout” of the automobile industry, which meant that the president never got much chance to tout what his administration believes to be successes.
One question I would have posed is whether it is necessary (or a moral imperative, as Romney asserted) to balance the federal budget, or whether the goal should be keeping the deficit at a manageable level – as is the practice at many businesses in the process of expansion. The answers would tell a lot about each man’s priorities. After the Clinton administration ran surpluses, the Bush administration used the balanced budgets as justification for major tax cuts, which led to renewed deficits and nearly universal demands to slash federal spending. If Obama or Romney managed to erase the deficit, would they be comfortable with that scenario repeating itself?
The last segment of the debate was about gridlock in Washington, but there was no mention of the filibuster in the Senate, or the rise of the Tea Party and its success at defeating Republican moderates in Congress. Romney pointed to his record in Massachusetts of working with Democrats, but he also criticized the president, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for their roles in passing ObamaCare. This brought to mind his effective “gang of three” commercials from his 2002 gubernatorial campaign, where he warned against one-party rule in Massachusetts. I wonder if he regretted the GOP taking over the House in 2010; if it hadn’t, he could have again run as a wise executive keeping a check on the legislative branch.
-- There was a back-and-forth over Romney’s plan to reduce tax rates by limiting or eliminating tax deductions and “loopholes,” with Obama saying the plan would only work with increased revenue from middle-class households. Romney oh-so-briefly mentioned that “economic growth” would raise enough revenue to make his plan feasible, but neither Obama nor Lehrer asked what would happen if economic growth is lower than expected. I wonder if Obama, whose campaign requires him to say that things are getting better, was afraid to even mention the possibility.
Romney promised, “I’ll restore the vitality to get the economy moving again,” which recalled his campaign-trail suggestion that violence against American embassies in the Middle East would be curtailed simply by the act of his moving into the White House.
--The popular idea of an omnipotent president showed up when Romney bragged, “I will eliminate all programs that don’t pass the test” of being worthwhile enough to justify borrowing from China to pay for them. (This includes public broadcasting, he told PBS journalist Lehrer without sorrow.) Obama responded by talking about the “77 programs” his administration has eliminated. Nobody talked about how to get Congress to accept the elimination of programs they presumably passed due to popular (or contributor) demand.
--Shades of “I like to fire people” when Romney talked about the advantages of seniors choosing a private health care plan as an alternative to Medicare: “I’d rather have a private insurance company… If I don’t like them, I can get rid of them and find another one.”
--At points, Romney blew Tea Party whistles with statements like “The government is not effective at bringing down the cost of anything” and “the private market and individual responsibility always work best.”
--Romney boasted more than once about public schools in Massachusetts being the best in the nation – a discordant note, given that conservatives revile the Bay State as overspending, overregulated “Taxachusetts.”
--Nice to see that the Deep South no longer has any economic problems. At least, they’re never mentioned in anecdotes about struggling citizens in presidential debates, not since they became safely Republican.
--This seems right, from TPM’s Josh Marshall: “I remember noting one thing about the 2004 debates, especially the first one. George Bush seemed not to like being criticized by a guy up there on the stage with him. Presidents just don’t have that happen. They get criticized but not often to their face. Bush showed that in spades. And I feel like I’ve seen some of that from Obama tonight. A lot of grimacing.”