Debate Illustrated Major Contrasts Between the Candidates
Whether forced or not, one of the best things about presidential debates is that they are conducted with an air of civility by the candidates.
And this debate format, though far from perfect, gave us the chance to hear generally more thoughtful answers on the broader themes we are all worried about, with the result that we finally got some meat to chew on in this election.
That former Gov. Mitt Romney steamrolled President Barack Obama in their first debate last Wednesday is a blinding glimpse of the obvious, but the manner in which he did it has made me shake my head repeatedly. While we were all puzzled by Clint Eastwood’s shtick, talking to an empty chair at the Republican National Convention in August, I think that perhaps the chair would have given Gov. Romney a tougher match.
And though Jim Lehrer struggled to manage the open-question format, there is just not enough of the bully in him to rein in the most powerful man and the pugilist seeking his ring when they have the floor in front of more than 40 million people. It was refreshing not to be bombarded with sound bites, induced applause, or cheers. The debate reminded me that we tend forget that we generally agree on most things; the two candidates were almost shy in their repeated acknowledgements of the things they agree about. It gave me pause.
One of the frequent challenges thrown at Romney has been the lack of specificity in his plans for economic turnaround, for what kind of tax cuts is he really talking about. For — well, for everything he proposes — we hear “where are the details?” Or as Obama said, in one of his few telling exchanges, “At some point, you have to ask, is he keeping all these plans to replace [programs] secret because they’re too good?” And adding, “Families are going benefit too much from them?”
Of course the main reason we want — and especially political opponents and journalists want — a detailed plan is so we can pick it apart to find the self-satisfying “gotcha” that drives the news cycle and twitterverse, and that renders moot all the good thinking and ideas that may also have been there.
That exchange highlighted a real contrast in leadership philosophy. Simplistically stated, Obama thinks it crucially important that we know where he stands and know exactly what he wants, so he outlines a detailed plan and presents it for approval. Romney thinks he should identify a problem and outline what would constitute a successful outcome, and work with legislators to accomplish it.
We also saw a fairly clear articulation of the differences in taxing philosophy. The president has been focused on raising certain tax rates and lowering taxes on most small businesses, as integral to raising the revenue that is essential in fixing our persistent deficit problems. Romney, in perhaps his clearest position, argues that the best approach to taxation is adjusting rates to maximize job and economic growth, and letting an expanding economy deliver higher government revenue.
The debate on Obamacare (I use the odious term reservedly because the president said he embraces it) also provided fodder for thought. For what seems like the first time, Romney did not run away from his record as governor of Massachusetts, embracing the state’s health care plan that is the model for the Affordable Care Act.
The contrast of his state-centric approach to the president’s plan is interesting, but only if Romney recognizes that the actual elimination of pre-existing condition exclusions is one of the plans most appealing features.
And finally, the president was rescued from his lousy debate performance by heartening news on the unemployment front, with the Bureau of Labor statistics release of a decline to 7.8 percent. Though he rightly seized on the slightly improved numbers, we all know that there are “lies, damn lies, and statistics.”
The jobless rate improved, and there was a positive adjustment in job creation, but there are also too many other statistics that remind us how persistently slow the recovery has been. The percentage of people working declined to 45.1 percent in September from 45.3 percent in August, according to Gallup News, though it remains a point higher than last September.
I am sure we’ll witness less civility and more sound and fury in the next debates, though I doubt more illumination. I think we’ll also see pundits declaring President Obama a winner in the remaining debates — especially given, as one twitter pundit posted, “Obama’s clear ‘ropa dopa’ tactics.”
Frank Daniels III, part owner of The Pilot and cousin of Pilot Publisher David Woronoff, is the community engagement editor of The Nashville Tennessean. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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