After the first presidential debate last night, which focused entirely on domestic policy, Fellows and staff from the Four Freedoms Center, Campus Network, and Pipeline weigh in with what was said, what was left out, and what was just an outright fib.
Thomas Ferguson, Senior Fellow, Roosevelt Institute; Professor of Political Science, University of Massachusetts, Boston; Contributing Editor, AlterNet:
My first reaction is simple: These guys have some nerve talking so cavalierly about teachers. Virtually from their first words, both the president and Governor Romney got lost in a fog of details. They begged questions, frequently argued from different premises, tossed off too many details without context, and rarely held a focus long enough for many in the audience to discern what they were talking about. The effort was a case study in how not to illuminate very much.
So what? I’d guess that Romney’s endless talk about “jobs” may persuade a few of his listeners that somehow his arithmetic actually does add up, but that number probably will not be large. I suspect, too, that the president’s highlighting how Romney’s voucher plans might change Medicare even for Americans now in their fifties probably was widely understood, too, and will work in the opposite direction. Possibly Romney, by not looking wooden, might pick up some tiny increment of public support. But my guess is that this debate changed few minds for all the talk of a Romney “victory.” My own takeaway is that both candidates’ harping on the genius of the American people and the virtues of the market system made it easy to lose sight of virtually all the important points at issue. I’d say the candidates battled to close to a draw, while America lost.
Dorian Warren, Fellow, Roosevelt Institute; Associate Professor of Political Science & School of International & Public Affairs, Columbia University:
Debates are rarely game-changers in presidential elections, and last night's debate was no different. The quick assessments of Romney's more aggressive performance compared to President Obama's weak and sleepy responses are correct, as far as they go. But we should remember that incumbents always do poorly in the first debate. As political scientist Sam Popkin argues, sitting presidents don't have time for debate prep, and they aren't used to being challenged the way Romney challenged Obama last night. Clearly, the Obama team's strategy was for the president to play it safe and not come across as an angry black man. We also know that Obama has never been a good debater -- recall the 2007 Democratic Primary debates where both Hilary Clinton and John Edwards put in consistently better performances. Obviously, we know who won the nomination despite his weak performance relative to his adversaries. What will happen now through the next debate will be fact-checking the claims made by both candidates followed by obsessive poll watching to see if and how the numbers move. In the end, of the small number of voters uncommitted, last night's debate wasn't decisive nor did it sway potential voters one way or the other.
Joelle Gamble, Deputy National Field Director, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network:
What was noticeably absent in last night’s debate was the mention of the role of everyday Americans in the economy, health care, and governance. Candidates talked about making strong investments in the future, but they did not elaborate on the role future Americans play in making their promises a reality. The bottom line for both campaigns was essentially this: “Vote for me and everything will be (or continue to be) better. Nothing bad will happen to people who are comfortable with their lives. Those who are unhappy with things will only see immediate benefits because of my policies.”
But this is a quintessential flaw in our current electoral political system. Citizens are simply voters and nothing more. We show up to the polls and mark our calendars for the next major election. For this reasons, political candidates have resigned themselves to only telling us what we want to hear before an election instead of what we need to hear to be invested in their policies afterwards. For either candidate to execute their plan well, a fully engaged citizenry is needed throughout their entire four years in office. Their success is dependent upon our continued participation on November 7th.
This participation requires a shared responsibility for the efficacy of our economic recovery. Some people will have to waste less gas or change their habits if we want to be more energy-efficient in the future. Others will have to adjust to a new system of health care if we want to be healthy as a country in the future and lower costs. The fact of the matter is, in order to keep moving in a positive direction, things will change for everyday Americans. The presidential candidates need to make it clear that we will have to be participants in that change if we want to be a better nation.
Millennials, if you went to bed after the debate feeling disheartened, that’s okay. You weren't alone. That debate was not for us. I love that Dodd-Frank got so much play, but President Obama and Governor Romney each missed the mark on talking to younger generations -- particularly on education.
President Obama mentioned twice that he wants funding to hire “100,000 math and science teachers,” and Governor Romney gave schools here in Massachusetts a mostly deserved tip of the hat for being among the best in the country. But while these statements came during a discussion of the role of the federal government, they failed to drill down on the role of education and thus the role of educated citizens in the American social framework.
I was disappointed that the candidates avoided discussing two key aspects of education policy last night. First of all, I wish that the DREAM Act
had been raised. It’s plausible that this will come up as part of the foreign policy debate in the coming weeks, and I try to maintain hope that eventually we can have a comprehensive immigration reform debate. But the DREAM Act is not really about foreign policy and national security. It is about creating opportunity for young, undocumented Americans to enter the hallowed demographics of “small business owners” and “middle-income families” that everyone courts so strongly during election season. American demographics are changing, and in order to remain competitive on the global stage, we need to embrace the talented, committed young people who are already here and give them every opportunity to succeed.
Teachers’ unions were also roundly ignored -- perhaps not surprising given recent controversies, but still unfortunate. (In fact, unions as a whole were not mentioned once, and even the ever-popular auto industry got but one brief line.) Millennials are teaching in droves, typically through structured service programs, before graduate school or entering the broader job market. This teaching bent is mainly temporary, however; most programs last only two to three years.
I think President Obama’s idea to hire 100,000 STEM teachers is a great one. But once schools have recruited and trained all these teachers, the trick is to keep them in the classroom working their magic with American school children and to make sure they feel supported by their parents, schools, and government outside the classroom. The unions may well have a powerful and positive role to play in striking this balance. The time to talk it over and find out is now. American education statistics no longer top the world. For candidates who talk about global competitiveness and making sure small businesses have someone to hire, leaving education out of this debate is a huge oversight.
Rahul Rheki, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow for Health Care; Senior, Rice University:
To me, the philosophical difference between the president and Governor Romney -- the visions they put forth for the role of government in America -- could not have been more stark. The barbs traded over healthcare were particularly emblematic of this dichotomy. Whereas Romney lambasted the ACA's "unelected board" for rationing care -- the IPAB is only advisory, mind you -- while distancing himself from his own signature health reform achievements in Massachusetts and proposed Medicare voucherization, President Obama embraced the provisions of the ACA that provided universal coverage, ended pre-existing conditions clauses, and ensured a thriving American social safety net for the coming decades. The competing choice, in my mind, was evident: the challenger's "every man for himself" versus the incumbent's "we're all in this together."
Given how much time the candidates spent talking past each other last night, it’s odd that some of their biggest flubs came in areas where they actually agreed, or at least claimed to. For Romney, it was health care reform – his most significant achievement as governor, and the one he’s barely been able to mention during this campaign for fear of conservative revolt. Though he was able to dodge most of the president’s criticisms throughout the debate by adopting new policy positions on the fly, his hair-splitting about whether Romneycare should be a model for national legislation was the least convincing part of his performance. Pressed to explain why he’d repeal the Affordable Care Act given that it’s essentially a scaled-up version of the plan he adopted in Massachusetts, Romney seemed to argue that Romneycare might be an appropriate model for every state, but not all of them at the same time. If states are the laboratories of democracy, he apparently wants Massachusetts to keep a tight hold on its patents.
As for President Obama, when he wasn’t wandering through a fog of obscure policy details, he was conceding far too much ground to conservatives. One of the most eyebrow-raising moments of the night was when Obama began the discussion of entitlements by declaring that he and Romney share a similar position on Social Security. Do they really? If so, progressives have a lot more to worry about than we thought, since Romney’s running mate is the author of a plan that would privatize it. Then there was the question about the need to cut deficits, where instead of rejecting the premise and making the case that we need a bigger deficit to create jobs, Obama defended his budget plans as Bowles-Simpson with a cherry on top. Instead of articulating a bold progressive vision for the economy and a strong defense of the social safety net, he often sounded like a moderate running in a Republican primary.
Rajiv Narayan, Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline, California:
We bring as much of our own perception to the debates as the presidential candidates add with their responses and rebuttals. Having recently landed my first job out of college, I understand the importance of building a labor force with diverse skills and an economy rich with opportunities. But what I understand to be even more important is the community of support that got me from my diploma to my first paycheck. That means teachers. Tonight I saw one candidate who praised teachers, but was unwilling to keep intact those programs supporting classrooms for political reasons. Likewise, I was disappointed by the political “strategery” at work on health care reform. When we reach a point where Governor Romney is threatening to dismantle the (unspecified, seemingly unpopular) parts of a health program cloned from his health program, in order to reinstate from the states, where "democracy's experiments take place," the most successful version of that program, I'm afraid we've become audience to Dadaist political theater.
Hannah Locke, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow for Energy and Environment; Senior, Goucher College:
C-SPAN, Fox News, Twitter, Facebook---tax policy, Big Bird, educational vouchers, zingers. The Internet was alive with puns, expressions of disgust, tired and overused commentary, and the usual spin. Is this what the battle for the soul of our country looks like? Boiled down to cherry-picked numbers, to stuttering sentences of little substance, to talking over the moderator? What does our Millennial generation garner from such a discussion? We laugh and point and tweet and snark, but I’ve started to wonder whether that level of “political engagement” is worth bragging about.
Meanwhile in Venezuela, the people are taking to the streets, risking their own lives to demand a fair and transparent democracy. The challenger, Henrique Capriles, heads a coalition of opposition groups who contest not only the continuation of Chavez’s isolating economic practices, but the proliferation of violence and fear in Venezuela. What started as state-sanctioned Robin Hood behavior quickly bred into a festering, sprawling disease of chaotic violence where anyone—poor, rich, liberal, conservative—runs the risk of getting in trouble with the street gangs or the military.
So next time we bemoan our elections, let’s take a step back and put things into perspective. We aren’t on a black list for going to an opposition leader’s website. We aren’t risking a bullet in the head every time we step out to a rally, stump speech or fundraiser. We aren’t risking our families’ future on the hope that our country can be something better than one of the most violent nations on this planet.
We go to the polls, and we vote. Sometimes, we should take a moment to recognize how much we’ve got, just as much as we recognize what we don’t have yet.
Kyle Shepherd, Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline:
My favorite passage of the night came from the candidates' back and forth on federal regulation of the economy. "You couldn't have people opening up banks in their garage and making loans," Romney said. "Every free economy has good regulation. At the same time, regulation can become excessive."
I love imagining people loaning money out of their garage. For all the talk of the American people's ingenuity, it seems like someone on the right must think this is a good idea. But this statement also points to the key differences between the two candidates on regulation, albeit in broad strokes. And as a progressive, this is a big deal to me, because Romney wants to eliminate important financial protections that don't have enough teeth to begin with.
Dodd-Frank, like much government oversight of the economy, can be easy to criticize. Detractors say it’s unwieldy, opaque, and brings unintended consequences. It's also not immediately apparent how it has solved the problem of banks being "too big to fail." Romney played on this by saying he wants to repeal and replace it with more intelligent regulation that will create jobs. This was a somewhat new proposal from him, as he has previously stated he just wants to repeal it, but it's also important to note he remains characteristically vague on the subject, making deeper analysis of his policies difficult. It's safe to say, however, that it would probably involve decreases in regulation on derivatives and relaxing the restrictions that have been imposed on the large, systematically important firms. This would debatably result in more jobs, but would certainly result in more banking profits.
Obama didn't do much to advance any new policy initiatives. He instead defended Dodd-Frank, mentioning the "reckless behavior" of Wall Street and touting the capital requirements and bank "living wills" imposed by the legislation he supported. There are some good things in Dodd-Frank, and it's much needed legislation that will hopefully strengthen over time as regulators adapt and enforce its stipulations.
The discussion of the role of government in regulating financial institutions is a vital one. These are important issues that get to the heart of inequality, corporate welfare, and consumer protection in our country. We need people to be able to borrow money with confidence they are not being taken advantage of, and the banks need to understand their risk is real and can't be passed over to someone else along the financial daisy chain. The debate on this issue needs to more fully acknowledge the risks inherent in the economy, who should assume responsibility for those risks, and what policies can make that happen.
Unfortunately, the debate as framed last night presented only two options. Either Dodd-Frank, a bill mercilessly attacked by lobbyists, only supported by key financial interests in order to prevent a stronger bill from passing, and only partially enforced -- or weaker regulations and restrictions as offered up by Romney.
Lydia Austin, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow for Economic Development; Senior, University of Michigan:
It seems that the hype surrounding this debate -- the numerous news articles and coverage dedicated to it -- was greater than the actual event. Both candidates held their own, both threw out a lot of facts related to tax policy and Medicare, and both were on the defensive for some amount of time. Romney had the most at stake coming into tonight: he desperately needed to rebrand himself as someone who understands the middle class and is responsive to Americans' frustrations. I think he effectively did that. Not an outstanding performance by either candidate, but in terms of who shifted the public discourse, it was definitely Romney (though now the Internet is blowing up with Big Bird photos).
Ken Lefebvre, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network member; Senior, University of Massachusetts:
Last night we witnessed two opposing narratives clash, unmitigated in their stances, and mostly unmoderated in their discourse. We saw a president tired from four years of entrenchment in the daily minutiae of national politics, and we saw an ever-eager opponent going into this fight with the gloves off. It could be said that Mitt Romney won this debate through his writers and an ability to look presidential. At the same time, Obama did what he had to to maintain his steady ground and consistent policies. Little was accomplished in this debate, and both candidates made the same talking points together that they had for months before. No new details were offered. You really could take segments of their commercials and edit them as if they were the debate. Emotional responses may tip the polls toward Romney for the time, but voters learned little from either candidate in this display.
Jean-Ann Kubler, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network member; Senior, Skidmore College:
After sifting through the talking points and empty rhetoric of last night’s debate (we get it, 5 trillion is a big number), the American public is left with very little substance on which to compare the incumbent Obama and challenger Romney. The two candidates made bold attempts, particularly during the economic segment of the debate, to appear as if they were presenting facts and specifics about tax plans, the deficit, and creating jobs. But in the end, what did viewers learn other than that Romney and Obama have starkly different opinions on how theoretical math works? Can Obama decrease the deficit by spending more and taxing more? Romney said no, but demonstrated no evidence other than his lack of faith. Can Romney spend $2 trillion extra on defense without raising taxes on the middle class to pay for it? Obama said no, and the math seems to back him up, but he was unable to present his argument in a manner that would be digestible by a common viewer. What the common viewer could easily discern, however, was that two presidential candidates with four Ivy League degrees between them, who both claim that the key to their governing style is bipartisan leadership, were unable to put aside polarizing, partisan rhetoric long enough to provide the American people enough information to make an educated decision about the future of our country.
Michelle Tham, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network member; Sophomore, American University:
The presidential debate had a lot more number-crunching than I expected. However, this didn't mean that all the numbers were correct. One ironic rhetorical point Romney has been using throughout his campaign (and continued at the debate) was "disregard the fact-checker and studies." Yet Romney's tax plan is defended by the Heritage Foundation. Furthermore, Romney mentioned clean coal. Since 2009, clean coal has already been identified as more of a misleading political frame than actual clean energy. Currently, there's no economical way to capture and eliminate carbon emissions from coal itself -- dirty or clean. On the same note, as Romney praises the idea of clean coal, he also misunderstands the collapse of the solar company Solyndra. There is no Solyndra scandal. Solyndra was simply a startup solar-power equipment manufacturer that was funded under the Bush administration. Solyndra fell because of the lack of demand and overseas competition. It has nothing to do with Obama's initiative for higher clean energy funds. Finally, the idea of investing in Solyndra itself adheres to Romney's idea of economic growth.
Mawish Raza, Roosevelt | Institute Campus Network member:
The start of the presidential debates last night had stirred up much more excitement than the debate itself was able to offer. Governor Romney presented an aggressive side that clamored over President Obama’s passiveness, but aside from the candidates' demeanor, the debates didn’t touch on many key issues, including women’s rights or immigration reform. Even during the dialogue on education and health care, neither candidate even mentioned the right for a woman to make her own decisions with her body or education being a right for all individuals.
Governor Romney repeated his commitment to education several times, along with his plan to allow parents to choose where to send their children. That’s great, but what about kids coming from broken families and being raised in poverty? What about human trafficking victims who are sold to the streets until disposed of? What about the failing education systems in inner cities? Because commitment to the education system doesn’t provide kids in these communities with instantaneous financial support, education often isn’t an answer for them. In these environments, the only plausible option for them may be to turn to drugs or crime. And when we focus on the family, where the emphasis on education will be placed on the parent’s engagement with their child, we are neglecting entire populations of youth around the country. This creates a cyclic culture of poverty for young people.