Friday, October 5, 2012

“The Debate – Act I”

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“The Debate – Act I”
October 5, 2012

While there were no zingers in Wednesday night’s debate that will survive for posterity, I did have a few favorites – all from Romney. When the subject of government investments in businesses like Solyndra and Tesla Motors arose, the Governor admonished the President: “I have a friend who said, you [referring to the President] don’t just pick winners and losers, you pick losers.” In another exchange about what specific programs he might cut, Mr. Romney replied, speaking directly to the moderator Jim Lehrer, “Sorry Jim, but I would cut subsidies to PBS.” Though, perhaps the best line was when the President claimed that there were tax laws that allowed deductions to companies whose employees are working abroad, and that they should be eliminated. Mr. Romney looked right at him and said, “I’ve been in business twenty-five years and I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The President appeared shamefaced…and I am sure some young staffer has since been eviscerated, Chicago-style.

Other than Rachel Maddow of MSNBC, who bewilderingly declared, “I personally do not know who won the debate,” there was, pardoning the pun, no debate as to who won the Debate. The Governor smoked the President. A CNN poll yesterday morning had Romney the winner by 67% to 25%. It was important for his campaign that he did well, and he obliged. While both men were respectful and gentlemanly, Mr. Romney was energetic, aggressive (without being in-your-face,) friendly, responsible and in command of the facts. The President, in contrast, seemed uncomfortable, defensive, repetitive and, in my opinion, bored – wishing he were elsewhere. Mr. Lehrer, who at least once had to reprimand the President, may no longer be on the White House’s list of favorites. Mr. Obama’s performance gave credibility to the claim that he is incapable of speaking without a teleprompter.

There are many pundits, usually those supporting a Debate’s loser, who dismiss the notion of debates, citing polls that suggest they have little effect on the outcome of elections. Jack Shafer, writing for Reuters a few days ago, in a piece entitled, “Why We Can’t Stop Watching the Stupid Debates,” noted that the debates are as much about what you don’t see as what you do. He noted, “…the best, and in many ways the intended, way to watch the presidential debates is with the sound off.” Should one have done so on Wednesday, one would have seen the Governor directing his remarks to the President, looking at him as he spoke. The President, however, when he didn’t have his eyes cast down, looked beseechingly at Mr. Lehrer. Both men were dressed conservatively in dark suits and, while using hand gestures that at times looked choppy, stayed behind their respective podiums, properly remaining in their own space.

Political debates in one form or another have been around for many years. The Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln Senatorial debates in 1858 are perhaps the most famous. Televised debates between Presidential candidates began with the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960. It was generally conceded by those that heard the debates on the radio that Nixon was the winner, but for those watching on television there was no question that Kennedy was the winner, anticipating the importance of form over substance that has come to characterize our politics today. After 1960, the next Presidential debate was in 1976, and from that year on they have become a regular feature of the presidential political season.

In 1987, the Commission on Presidential Debates was formed as a non-partisan 501(c)(3) corporation to conduct the debates. The Commission, which has been headed by Janet H. Brown since its founding, began with ten corporate sponsors. Three of those have resigned this year: Phillips Electronics, BBH New York and the YWCA. Their decision to do so was the result of lobbying efforts by those who oppose the exclusion of third-party organizations, claiming the Commission is an anti-democratic institution. Like everything else, nothing stays the same.

Interestingly, as a percent of the population in terms of attracting viewers, no debate has come close to the one between Nixon and Kennedy in 1960. It was estimated that 66 million people watched that first debate (37% of the population) versus 19% of the population, or 57 million people, watching the first debate in 2008. On Thursday morning the best guess was that 60 million people tuned into the debates on Wednesday evening, at the high end of expectations, but which would again be less than 20% of the population.

But this Debate, it is my guess, provided a badly needed boost to a campaign that the Press had determined was foundering. I was glad to hear Mr. Romney phrase the debt problem, not only in financial terms, but in moral terms. He was right to have done so. It is immoral to leave to our children and grandchildren the necessity of cleaning up after ourselves. The problem of debt extends beyond the pure mathematics of its retarding economic growth. Federal debt at more than 100% of GDP limits government’s ability to respond to crises, and it prevents it from making the kind of investments that led to space exploration in the 1950s and ‘60s. Today’s debt load could prevent government from making the kind of missile defense investments that would make our increasingly nuclearized world a whole lot safer than it is.

It was Mr. Romney’s night. Most impressive, as mentioned above, was his command of facts and statistics. He did a good job of foiling the President’s attempts to tie him to policies that are not his. When the President repeatedly mentioned a $5 trillion tax cut he falsely claimed had been proposed by his Republican opponent, Mr. Romney finally turned to the President and said, “Look Mr. President, I have five sons. I understand the concept that if one repeats a lie often enough, it may be taken as the truth, but that does not make it the truth.” Mr. Romney added, but still speaking deferentially, “You are entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts.” Viewers were able to get a clearer view of Mr. Romney’s plan to cut nominal tax rates, while eliminating or reducing deductions, especially for the wealthy. He emphasized his role as Governor of Massachusetts and the necessity of his having to work across the aisle, as the Legislature was more than two thirds Democratic. He was ruthless in hammering the President’s fiscal policies, the consequences of which have been a widening income gap, persistent high unemployment, lower middle class incomes and increased poverty.

The two men will next meet in two weeks at a town hall-style debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY on Tuesday, October 16. One can be assured, the President will be less diffident and far more aggressive than Wednesday night, but will remain just as elusive when it comes to explaining exactly why the last four years have gone so badly for so many people. In the meantime, like the gravedigger scene in Hamlet, we will get the comic relief of Paul Ryan sparring with the loose-lipped, but always smiling Joe Biden.

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