Presidential Debates 2012, October 3rd

My thoughts on just watching the first of the 2012 presidential debates…

For starters, a big thank you to ABC News (here) for airing a live streaming of the debate.  (It was also on YouTube, but it wasn’t working for me.)  Sometimes it’s difficult to wrangle things from networks out to the public.  ABC News is also promising some forthcoming fact-checking, which should be nice, although I think the debate was much more rhetoric and ideology than data.  (One major disappointment, though, I did have with the ABC live stream, was that nearly a third of the video screen was taken up by a Twitter bar, which published often inane comments.  I thought that was inappropriate for a formal debate and for legitimate news to air it.  What about journalistic integrity?)

Secondly, to state my biases up front, I am not a fan of Romney at all.  And I have approved of most of Obama’s actions – and what he’s attempted that was blocked by a stubborn hyperpartisan Congress.  I don’t approve wholeheartedly, or partisanly, with everything Obama has done, but I am satisfied with the job he has done and the direction in which he is going, independent of other candidates.  (That is to say that I’m not pro-Obama just because he isn’t Romney, nor anti-Romney because he’s not Obama.  Nor do I consider myself one party or the other, though a lot of my platforms may be more left-leaning.)

So, I am against Romney for several reasons, whether or not I take the gaffes into account, although the 47% remark really helped put the nail in the coffin.  But, for the purposes of the debate, I wanted to try to put my biases aside, and try to just judge this instance independently.

General impressions:  Overall, I think Romney did rather well.  Both participants were quite civil – which may or may not be a good thing.  I personally am more in favor of civility.  I don’t want, say, Obama to just go on the defensive to the point of being apologist, without pointing out any of Romney’s weaknesses, while just receiving attacks.  But I would like to believe, in a perfect world (that doesn’t exist) that, in politics, a person’s policies and actions will speak for themselves, without the need to attack the other person.  I think the moderator could have moderated a little more forcefully, to reign the conversation to more topics, since, I believe, quite a few were left out.

What I am finally a little glad for is that this appears to be the first time, although coming quite a bit too late, that the candidates were at least touching on having a serious conversation about issues.  There are many valid points to discuss, many critiques that can be levied, and even broader ideologies to compare.  But instead, this presidential campaign, up ’till now, seems like it’s been mentioning only vague soundbites and homilies, creating caricatures, and whipping up frenzies over exaggerated stereotypical rhetoric.  and, of course, the wedge issues.

Jim Lehrer saw his job as trying to establish, for the American audience, what the key (A vs not-A, or A vs B) differences were between the candidates.  (Which, while helpful for voting, would, perhaps, not allow for nuance, subtly, or views the candidates would have in common.)

The issues/the ideology:  The overarching theme, as old as America, is the role of government.  Is it the federal government’s job/domain to have a broad influence into people’s lives, such as regulating the private sector, helping citizens receive healthcare, being more hands-on in business?  Ideologically, is it the government’s job to improve the health of its citizens more directly?  Or is the federal government supposed to be more hands-off on domestic issues, such as healthcare and businesses?  The belief being that the private sector can and does do it (fill in the blank) better.  (Only more hardcore libertarians and more extreme constitutionalists, I believe, would argue for hands-off government overall, including foreign policy and military.  I don’t think any major candidate wants to reduce military and military/foreign-related government power.)

To note, while, ideologically, it can sound great to advocate for small and more hands-off government, I’ve seen people get this idea confused.  (For the record, there are some things I think I’m very libertarian about.)  At the same time, America is already, for decades, “socialistic” and not socialistic at all.  Medicare, Medicaid, the VA, the link card are all obvious, and often attacked examples.  But also FAFSA loans, public education, teachers, firefighters, the Post Office, roads, and so on…  (and, for the record, the Affordable Care Act is not remotely socialistic.  It is profoundly capitalistic, delivering more customers over to private insurers.)

moving on…and back to the debates….

I think Obama had the best answer regarding the role of government: that it is foremost for safety, and then that it is to provide opportunity to everyone, specifically via education, roads (he could have name-checked FDR and New Deal, but he pointedly and tellingly name-checked Lincoln and railroads instead)…and that these things (schools, education, teachers) did not encroach on freedoms or hamper businesses, but just helped increase opportunities for people.  [Obviously, Obama said it better than my haphazard paraphrasing.]

Conversely, I think Romney tripped himself up on that question.  (strains of flip-flopping?)  He started out his reply by defending himself, that he isn’t against teachers or education.  Then he mentioned that it is the role of the states and local areas to govern education and that the federal government essentially has no business in education.  Then, he backpedaled, saying that he has no problem with this particular area of how things are now and that, if president, he wouldn’t cut any federal spending to education.  I particularly liked one thing that Romney said, which was the idea of the government subsidizing individual students rather than subsidizing schools.  I’ve read about this idea before, I think from here, Why Does College Cost So Much?, as one proposed solution to keep in check or lower disproportionately high tuition costs.  So I like the idea of the government subsidizing individuals over schools.  For one thing, it would allow public universities more wiggle room to compete with private universities, rather than being under the government’s thumb, theoretically.  So, granted, it could be a could idea.  However, government subsidies, grants, and loans are still federal government subsidies, grants, and loans.  If Romney disapproves of federal government involvement in education, leaving it to the states (and Ryan wants to severely cut domestic programs for his budget plan…and the Republican party by the looks of their voting record in Congress), then there wouldn’t be any money to subsidize to students.  What does Romney think the F in FAFSA stands for?

The issue of taxes:  This is where I would have liked to watch the debate with an accountant to see their response.  My take is that the tax code is very complicated, and that solutions necessarily can’t be as simple as “I will raise taxes” or “I will lower taxes.”  At least I know that much.  I think the reason the candidates are purposefully vague and generalizing is because they know that most Americans don’t understand the complexities and intricacies of tax law, and are willing to bet that even those who do would get bored hearing about it.  We’re Americans, after all, we want (supposedly) mud-slinging and bold definitive catchphrases (look how far Cain ran with “9-9-9”.  It’s stupid.  It shows absolutely no knowledge of taxes, nor a concept of fairness and proportionality.  but it’s catchy. and was spoken with the gusto of a cowboy.)  I guess here’s where the internet can help, in that all the candidates/incumbent have to do is reference it, and then reveal the specifics on a webpage.  Romney is vague, but Ryan is very specific.

Again, I cringed at Romney here.  It seemed to me that Romney has virtually built his whole campaign on the notion of lowering taxes, or extending and/or increasing tax cuts.  (Grover Norquist and the GOPers he got to commit to that stupid pledge, which Norquist himself admitted he created when he was in middle school, would love that.)  Then, when cornered by Obama, Romney turns around and says that he wasn’t pushing tax cuts.  what?

There were other details that were vague, but at least a little more nuanced.  Thanks to the hyperbolic media, I had been essentially sold the idea that Romney is anti-regulation, therefore painting Obama as regulation heavy.  TIME magazine actually ran an article trying to persuade the idea that strict government regulation of business does not hinder business, in that many countries with very strict regulations and taxes (such as China) are thriving and that the US, by contrast, has far fewer regulations, and much less GDP growth.  In the debate tonight, Romney gave a more balanced answer, that some regulation is certainly needed, as long as there isn’t too much.  (which may be a sentiment that Obama would agree with)  There was discussion of Simpson-Bowles and Dodd-Frank.  I don’t know what’s not to like about Simpson-Bowles, as it apparently reduces the national debt, while somewhat modestly cutting spending, and cutting spending more than raising revenue (letting tax cuts expire rather than raising taxes).  Apparently, Romney wasn’t in favor of Simpson-Bowles, but it appeared that he might have his ratio of 10:1 wrong.  Moving on to Dodd-Frank, I like that it advocates for transparency.  If there’s something our government, financial institutions, and campaign finance can’t get enough of, it should be transparency.  Apparently, both candidates wholeheartedly approved the transparency aspect of Dodd-Frank.  (although given Romney’s off-shore accounts, his reticence about releasing his tax forms or his reticence in general, and the very nature of superPacs, I doubt Romney’s commitment to transparency – but let’s ignore this for now and just focus on the debate)  The take-home point was that Romney disagreed with some apparently business-hindering regulations from Dodd-Frank, and suggested that though regulations are needed, many are outdated.  (I don’t doubt this.)  Point blank, Romney likes some of Dodd-Frank, such as the transparency, but would repeal it.  Obama’s response was what would he replace it with?

This was the question of the night.  It’s one thing to attack the current policies and get rid of them.  but then what?  What exactly is Romney’s tax plan?  Is he or isn’t he creating tax cuts?  What is Romney’s budget plan, is it Ryan’s?  Would the federal government remove itself from education, Medicare, link cards, (post office, parks, health care clinics…), lessen its current involvement, or stay the way it is?  Romney seemed to suggest that he wouldn’t cut some domestic spending (specifically education), while saying that he doesn’t approve of federal involvement (in education);  while saying he’d cut spending elsewhere, specifically PBS.

My thought was that both candidates were too vague on taxes and that saying “I will cut taxes” or “I don’t think cutting taxes is the answer” is not good enough.  What about increasing the capital gains tax?  What about dissolving Norquist’s pledge to help alleviate hyperpartisan strain?  I do like the idea, as mentioned by Bill Clinton in a somewhat recent interview with TIME, of giving corporations tax cuts and/or deductions and/or various incentives if they prove a net gain of American jobs.  For instance, increase the capital gains tax and create some stricter regulations.  But, if your business chooses to stay in America rather than outsource, it gets a lower capital gains tax, or some tax deductions or something.  This way, the government is still somewhat hands-off, letting the private market do its thing.  But it wields its power of taxation to incentivise corporations to stay in America – since you can’t really compete with the cheap labor in other countries.  and/or corporations and/or job creating individuals moving to other countries for better tax deals (see Facebook co-founder moving to Singapore).

Healthcare:  I liked the idea Romney mentioned of paying physicians by quality, rather than (as perhaps implied) per test.  What about the Geisinger method, or the method Mayo uses, which appear humane, successful, efficient, and cost-lowering.  (and they’re still private capitalist methods)  I think a focus on preventative care is key.  Imagine if everyone received free preventative care.  It would significantly reduce health care costs by lowering chronic illness, which drain the system.  If poorer people received better food, it could lead to lowering obesity, with could lower diabetes, which… and so on.  So, Romney made a good statement there.  and the candidates touched on the bigger issue, which is the role of the government.  Should the government be involved in healthcare?  If so, how should it be involved and to what extent?  What is it ok to do, what not, and what is possible to do and not do?  And the follow-up question, can the private sector do it better?

I think it’s fair to say that some government-run operations are not very well run when compared to the private sector.  I also think it is fair to say that the current health care system, pre-Affordable Care Act, that is in place is not working.  It works well for some, but it is pretty horrible for the working poor.  (and the candidates didn’t even mention the working poor, only the middle class.  Although Obama name-checked them at the end – the middle class…and those aspiring to be middle class.)

I don’t have the answers here.  Regarding healthcare, I think Europe seems to have a good handle on it.  I’ve read that Switzerland has found a capitalistic model that works well.  I hear this Geisinger method – pay per quality and salaried – is good.  (seems like most other industrialized countries have a better handle on it than the US.)  One could argue that Medicare and Medicaid aren’t functioning well.  One could argue the VA works well, or the VA works poorly (I’ve heard both from people experiencing it).

I think both *candidates like the idea of getting rid of the “pre-existing conditions” limitation.  People aren’t a fan of the individual mandate.  Or having the individual mandate without the public option, to be more precise.  Romney’s hurdle is the “Romneycare,” which was generally considered both successful and widely approved.  How can he argue being against something he was for?  In fact, I think in this debate, was one of the first times I’ve ever heard Romney mention his past as a governor.  And he did so rather well…maybe he should have done so sooner.  It got a little sticky when Romney was trying to explain the differences between his “Romneycare” and “Obamacare”…”well, I didn’t cut $716 billion from Medicaid…but we didn’t have Medicaid” …so…that statement was useless?  and Obama’s question of the night, so Romney would appeal Obamacare (aka Affordable Care Act), but then what?  Implement Ryan’s voucher system?  do nothing? It sounded like Romney was in favor of the voucher system.

Romney kept mentioning that what he’d do would not affect current retirees.  Right, but it would affect whole generations of other people though.  Which Obama was quick to point out.  It just seemed a little faulty logic to me.

[i.e.  “His plan is bad.”

“Can you explain your plan?”

“Well, it’s not his plan.” 

Yes, but what is your plan?

Well…

You used to have this plan, and it was a lot like his plan.  Can you describe how it was different?

It was a lot like his, but it wasn’t.  Because mine was good, and his is bad…

ok…so what’s your new plan?

no mention.  the other guy mentions it for him (voucher)

“He mentioned the voucher plan.  Is this your plan?”

“well.. you know, the voucher plan’s not so bad.”

the other guy describes how it’s bad.

“rebuttal?”

“It won’t hurt current retirees.”

other guy: but it’ll hurt those just about to retire, and everyone younger.

“Yeah, but it won’t hurt current retirees.”]

So: taxes: too vague on either side.  But Romney lost me with his backpedaling.  Economy and jobs: Not really sure.  You either like what the president has done or you don’t.  But what Romney would do is a bit of a mystery.  Healthcare: Romney has to overcome the hurdle of “Romneycare”, so there was some backpedaling.  However, he handled it rather well.  (He mentioned that Massachusetts has the best schooling – yes, Harvard – but that has nothing to do with Romney.)  Romney mentioned paying physicians by quality and hearing creativity from individuals, which deserves some credit (but I thought overusing “creativity” for rhetoric rather than specific solutions).  Romney either loses some points for being vague about what he would do, or for the voucher plan.  It comes down to whether or not you like the voucher plan.  For the role of government: I liked Obama’s answer and thought it was the best of the night for him.  Romney did some backpedaling on education.  I give Romney points for mentioning subsidizing individuals, but I disliked his backpedaling…and he wouldn’t be able to subsidize those individuals in the first place if he cuts federal government connection to education, taking the F out of FAFSA…not to mention the toll to all public schools.  That about sums it up.  I thought Obama gave the better send-off speech at the end.  (and at least Obama mentioned the poorer-than-middle class.)

I would still like more specifics.  What specifically about tax reform?  What specifically about turning around the economy, creating jobs, and decreasing the deficit?  More reasonable debates on the role of government, from a practical real-world standpoint.  (I care a lot about some social and civil rights issues, but am happy to have them take a backburner to these.  plus I want to avoid intentionally hyped wedge issues.  but I will say that I am pro-gay marriage and pro-woman’s rights and would find it very difficult to support a candidate who would repeal Roe v. Wade, or clamp down against women and LGBT, and LGBT supporters.)  I don’t care about foreign policy, to be honest.  (and don’t see how the candidates differ there.)  So far, I’ve been content with Obama’s diplomacy-first, yet will drone you if need be firm-hand, policy.  (speak softly, carry a big stick, anyone?)

Recommended links:

Fact checking, ABC

Fact checking, Yahoo

Transcript!, ABC News

update:

*after reading/hearing the fact checking, it turns out that Romney’s current proposed healthcare plan (not the one from Massachusetts) would not help people with pre-existing conditions (they’d only be grandfathered in if they’ve had health insurance for the last 3 months.  so if you change insurance in the future or don’t currently have insurance and are looking to get it, you could potentially not get it if you have pre-existing conditions.  Under Affordable Care Act, insurers can’t turn you away for pre-existing conditions.

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