The Thinking Voter’s Debate

There are a lot of people who haven’t paid much attention to the presidential race so far. They may know for whom they’re voting, but base their decision on very little education. For them, last night’s debate mattered.

They might be voting for Mitt Romney.

Unless they like PBS, which he promised to desubsidize as part of a plan to defund everything he deems unworthy of borrowing money from China. Despite professing a love of Big Bird. Who immediately ended up trending on Twitter.

That’s a lot of programs on the chopping block, so if you’re a fan of things like art and culture and  umpteen other less touchy-feely things subsidized by the government, you might be a little concerned by this.

Mr. Romney clearly outperformed President Obama in last night’s face-off in Denver. The debate was civil, there were no fireworks, and it offered a lot of detail and lots of mentions of Bowles-Simpson (actually officially Simpson-Bowles), which people who don’t pay attention to politics may have never heard of. (It was a bi-partisan commission formed in 2009 to make no-holds-barred suggestions for how to trim spending and the deficit. Neither candidate loved it 100%, but both candidates liked it to some degree.)

For those who haven’t paid attention to politics, this would have been the problem with last night’s debate: it was info-heavy, which is exactly what they want but not exactly what keeps their interest… since, by virtue of not having been paying attention, they don’t know what the candidates were talking about.

Let’s talk about the most common refrain we’ve heard throughout the campaigns: job creation.

Mitt Romney says if he’s elected, he’ll help create 12 million jobs in his first term. How he’ll do that remains mostly a mystery, though he says that fostering energy independence will create four million of them. His ideas for energy independence include increasing the production of “clean coal.”

“I like coal,” he declared simply.

And I laughed out loud because it sounded so much like Brick Tamland’s “I love lamp.”

He did not mention green energy initiatives at all.

The president has long been about fostering new energy alternatives, and he does claim that, while he supports green energy initiatives, drilling for oil is up under his administration. And it is, but as Mr. Romney pointed out, it’s up on private land. On public land, it’s down significantly.

I’m not going to turn this into a debate over energy, but the Obama Administration has made it very clear that it’s time to actually do what we’ve been talking about doing since the 1970s and create energy alternatives. His Republican counterparts, including Mr. Romney, don’t want to do it because it doesn’t have a big enough profit margin. It’s clear on which side the planet loses, and frankly, on which side consumers, in the short term, lose. If you want to think long-term, you go with the president’s plans. If you want to think consumer short-term, you go with the Republican plan.

But it’s difficult to argue that any amount of job creation would be meaningful without an increase in American manufacturing. To that end, both candidates want to decrease the tax rate on American businesses, particularly manufacturing, in order to encourage them to keep their business here instead of outsourcing jobs. The president wants to drop the corporate tax rate to 25%. It’s currently 35%. The president also said that, right now, businesses get a tax break to ship their jobs overseas. Mr. Romney replied that he has no idea what the president is talking about.

This is where I had the  biggest problem with the president’s performance. If you were watching on a network that provided a split-screen at that moment, you saw the president make a face that I inferred to mean, “Well if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you don’t know enough.” But he never verbalized it. Time after time, there were clear disagreements that the president never took the opportunity to voice, corrections he never tried to make. I don’t know why. But that was frustrating to watch. 

Mr. Romney said his plan for America basically has five parts: energy independence, open trade, ensuring skills for work in part by having the best schools in the world, championing small business and a balanced budget.

Sounds fantastic. How?

Didn’t really say.

But Mr. Romney did come to this debate extremely well-prepared. He cited specifics in numbers that went a long way toward informing Americans about what is going on in the economy, and the president simply repeated two: Romney’s supposed plan for five trillion dollars in tax cuts along with an increase of two trillion in military spending that he said the military hasn’t asked for. It’s a decent argument, because his point was it can’t be done without revenue (and Mr. Romney has refused to consider tax increases of any kind). The problem is that Mr. Romney responded that he does not have a plan to cut five trillion in taxes, and the president never laid out his reason for using the number. He just repeated it.

What I found interesting about Mr. Romney’s assertions, though, was that he insisted that he would not reduce the “share of taxes” on the wealthiest Americans. This is a new verbage. This is the first time in the campaign that he has said this. What he means is that, while he would decrease the income tax level for the wealthiest Americans, they would wind up paying just as much because he would also close loopholes and decrease available deductions, exemptions and credits. It’s not a stretch to understand why he might not have mentioned this before: either he didn’t have the idea before, or it’s a little scary to American homeowners to hear they may lose the tax deduction for their mortgage pr maybe even – dare he? – pay a higher tax rate on capital gains. Mr.Romney did not say which deductions and credits he’d change, but in the past when questioned, he has said he would have to work with Congress to establish them. That adds the layer of uncertainty: he can say this is what he’ll do, but he can’t do it unless Congress agrees, and though he may have a friendly Congress, it will be hard to get them to go along with things like decreasing the amount of tax deduction available for mortgage loan interest, for example.

His implication is that it’s a zero-sum game, which it’s not, but it was another specific citation that made Mr. Romney look like he knew more about the economy than the president did.

It’s not that the president gave no specifics in the debate. He said he wants to hire 100,000 new math and science teachers and create two million slots in community colleges to give people opportunities for less expensive higher education. He said he’s cut taxes on small businesses 18 times. He said the average American family has seen its tax burden decrease by $3,600. And he drove home the point that Mr. Romney’s plan for closing the loopholes, trimming the deductions and credits, etc., will not be enough to pay for his plans for tax cuts and to pay down the deficit as he says he wants to do. Plus he says independent economists have determined that under Romney’s plan, the average American family would pay $2,000 more in taxes per year… for nothing.

He’s saying it’s impossible to get the fiscal debt down without asking for more revenue. It’s not a new point, but this was the first time he got to explain why Mr. Romney’s plan won’t work, even if it does get through Congress.

The other specific conversation I found intriguing was the one about tax rates for small businesses. The president says that, for 97% of small businesses, the tax rate will not increase. But Mr. Romney pointed out that the three percent that’s left employs 25% of American workers. And he says the increase on that three percent, from 35% to 40%, will cost 700,000 jobs.

I don’t know where he got his numbers; he didn’t say. But the president didn’t argue, though I sensed he wanted to.

That’s a point you have to argue.

What he did say is that Mr. Romney defines small businesses differently, and that somehow under Mr. Romney’s definition, Donald Trump owns a small business. I don’t know what that means and he didn’t explain it.

What the president did explain was that he hasn’t been shy about trimming wasteful spending in the federal government. He pointed out that he’s eliminated 77 programs, 18 of which were for education, because they just weren’t doing enough. He said he’d cut $50 billion in waste and trimmed a trillion dollars from the federal discretionary spending budget – the largest since Eisenhower was in office.

Mr. Romney went a long way to clarify his lack of extremism when it comes to regulation. He expressed very clearly that he understands that regulation is necessary in order for capitalism to function well. What he didn’t balance with that is his laissez-faire approach to failing markets. He reiterated that he wouldn’t have classified banks as “too big to fail,” and while that’s a good populist approach, it doesn’t take into account the fact that if those banks had gone under, they would have taken millions of jobs and investments with them. It also reminded the attentive viewer that Mr. Romney would not have bailed out the auto industry – arguably the single most important manufacturing industry the country has left – an industry that reported last month that its sales are up… 41% for Toyota, 12% for Chrysler, 2% for General Motors (Ford was flat) over last year.

And the president did hit back on Romney’s point with a bottom line that’s hard to debate: when the economy crashed in 2008, was it because there was too much regulation? No. It was because there wasn’t enough, and things were allowed to run wild. So he made sure that every bailout given was returned 100% plus interest (he’s right), and he instituted the toughest reforms since the 1930s.

You’ll recall that’s directly after the stock market crash of 1929.

Much has been made among the punditry about the president seeking reelection with the highest rate of unemployment since FDR. That stands to reason, doesn’t it? He’s also dealt with the greatest economic crisis since FDR. I went looking for a breakdow”n of unemployment rates in presidential election years and couldn’t find a comprehensive list that dated back before 1956, but I’d be willing to bet that Mr. Obama and Mr. Roosevelt were the only presidents who had to run when unemployment was above 7%. It’s an arbitrary comparison that I believe a thinking voter has to dismiss.

And that’s really the key here, as it always is. The voter has to think. The voter can’t fall for things that seem substantial but aren’t. Today, I found this post on Facebook: “What our economy runs on is free people pursuing their dreams. That’s what makes America work.”

That’s a meaningless jumble of words meant to stir patriotism without thought. The American economy runs on a lot more than that. The post came from the Romney campaign.

Think before you “like” a candidate.

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11 thoughts on “The Thinking Voter’s Debate

  1. I hate to leave a comment showing my stupidity, but I don’t really understand much of what either one said! I want to make an informed decision but cannot figure out how to muddle through the mumbo jumbo and find out the truth.

    • I don’t think that makes you stupid. There really wasn’t much mumbo-jumbo in this debate, that’s the thing. If it helps to read it at your own pace (and maybe be able to look things up), try reading a transcript of the debate. Then you can also find a fact check from a reputable source like PolitiFact.

  2. Thanks as always, cell. I think the President approached the debate with the strategy that if he let Romney talk, he would dig his own grave, as he’s done quite often recently. I don’t believe he was prepared for how well Romney had been coached. But I think he will be next time. While Romney continually stressed “jobs”, which was a great word to keep throwing up, as it does give a lot of people hope, I did not hear how any of this was going to happen. And I thought the President did at one point explain the $5 trillion number, but I’d have to double check that. I didn’t feel that Romney explained where he was going to get the money to do all the fabulous things he talks about, and felt that he is operating on an unrealistic premise that he can waltz into Washington and just make the changes he wants. That’s not going to happen, just like it didn’t happen with this administration, which I think was a rude awakening for the President. Romney says whatever he thinks will get him elected, in my opinion, and none of his statements now can sway me from thinking that what he really beleives is that he doesn’t care about 47% of us. Me included.

    • I think he wanted it to be about policy and didn’t expect Romney to know as much as he did. I also think he wanted it to be civil and therefore missed a lot of chances to “slam” Romney for comments like the one you brought up about the 47%. One of the president’s drawbacks is that sometimes his “coolness” backfires. I think you’re right that, in the next debate, it will be different.

  3. Good summary. I don’t always agree with your interpretation of the facts of the matter but you always provide a summary that I find useful. We’ll see regarding the next debate. I think that sometimes, when the President makes his “I don’t agree face” but doesn’t say anything, it’s because on business and economic matters, his opinions are philosophical, not practical. He also seems to have an arrogant disregard for Romney, which is a mistake. I also disagree on your thoughts on the Facebook comment. It may not be a detailed approach to the economy … or economic rocket science … but it is a key component of the notion that the entrepreneurial spirit is part of what drives this country.

    • I tried not to “interpret” too much but I did characterize a few things, yes, in keeping with my “thinking voter” theme. And not everyone thinks the same way I do, I know. 🙂
      And yes, the entrepreneurial spirit does drive the country. But as you clearly understood, it’s still an empty way of wording it, and we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be stirred to vote a certain way by empty words. Lots of countries have free people pursuing their dreams. That doesn’t distinguish the US from any diplomatic republic. I have to laugh a little at the rousing speeches about freedom. Lots of countries are free. That’s not what makes America America.

  4. Romney crushed Obama because he played the game Obama is weakest at – making unequivocal statements about his plans to make life better for everyday Americans. Romney spoke to what the working people care about and fear while Obama pontificated, mugged and skirted all the issues. Romney very skilfully showed Obama up for the charlatan and coward he is and presented the image of a strongman to lead America out of the waters of recession in which Obama dumped us. And the best the Liberals have got is “he’s going to kill Big Bird”. Push comes to shove, he’s also going to kill Elmo, so that just about makes it even.

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