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Debates Are Last Chance for Conversation We Deserve

By Carl M. Cannon - October 3, 2012


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As the 2012 presidential campaign got underway, the nation needed -- and much of the country wanted -- an adult discussion about the size and scope of government. In political science, this subject is known as federalism. It's the turf battle between local, state, and federal government.

In the era of the Tea Party, federalism has acquired an even more expansive meaning. How much government involvement in daily life does the Constitution allow for? How much do Americans want? How much they are willing to pay for? These are the cosmic questions everyday Americans are arguing about, along with the associated question of which major political party is best suited to arbitrate these issues.

Instead, U.S. voters have been subjected to a nine-month barrage of witless blather -- often in the form of negative TV ads or ad hominem personal attacks -- about Mitt Romney’s taxes and religion, Ann Romney’s horse, the Romney family dog, whether young Barack Obama ate dogs, about grown-up Barack Obama’s accent, whether Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren is part Cherokee, whether her opponent Scott Brown and other Republicans are waging a “war on women,” and whether Democrats are waging a “war on faith.”

In an editorial before the two national nominating conventions, The Washington Post succinctly summed up the 2012 campaign: “The American people deserve better.”

But these candidates don’t trust the voters to understand the basic math of the federal budget, and don’t respect them enough to tell them the truth about difficult issues. Moreover, they are imperious to shame. When caught lying, they tell a new lie. When asked for specifics about one of their policy “proposals,” they shrug and move on to the next talking point.

The most frivolous treatment of a serious issue this entire campaign season may have been Mitt Romney’s proposed solution for how America should address its broken immigration policies, specifically what to do about the estimated 12 million people living in the United States who came here illegally but have put down roots, taken jobs, assimilated themselves into communities, and had children.

To this intractable public policy question, Romney proposed during a Republican primary debate an astonishingly primitive solution. “The answer,” he said, “is self-deportation.”

Romney has continued these shortcuts as a general election candidate, perhaps most notably airing an ad accusing the president of taking action to “drop work requirements” in the 1990s welfare reform law signed by Bill Clinton. “Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and you wouldn’t have to train for a job,” the ad continued. “They just send you your welfare check.”

The trouble here is that there is no “Obama plan.” The administration was mostly responding to waiver requests filed by governors of the states -- yes, that’s a federalism issue -- two of whom are Republicans.

The Democrats have not been slackers in the art of trivializing important public policy questions, either. Romney’s selection of budget-cutting House member Paul Ryan as his running mate could have jump-started a serious dialogue between the two parties about how the nation’s huge entitlement programs -- Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security -- should be reformed to make them sustainable. Ryan has proposed some interesting and specific ideas in this area, particularly regarding Medicare.

They may be good ideas, and they may be bad ones. But instead of engaging them, the Democrats took to attacking Ryan personally, deliberately mischaracterizing his proposals. Although the House Republican plan specifically requires insurance companies to offer coverage to all Medicare beneficiaries, Democratic Party Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz falsely claimed that the GOP plan would deny health care to seniors with preexisting medical conditions. Actually, the way she put it, with a straight face, was that Republicans “would throw you to the wolves.”

It’s an open question, as Brookings Institution senior fellow William Galston has observed, whether the American people are truly prepared for honest talk about the grim realities of entitlement spending. But the rhetoric coming from the DNC, we can stipulate, is not helpful in this regard.

The nadir of the 2012 campaign -- at least so far -- was probably an Obama super-PAC ad featuring a familiar Romney-bashing steelworker who maintained that Bain Capital had essentially killed his wife by buying GST Steel, looting it, and then closing it down, thus depriving his family of medical care. A “short time after that,” the steelworker claims, his wife died of cancer that was late in being diagnosed because the family lacked insurance.

The ad was dishonest in its overall implication and all of its particulars: First, GST Steel was purchased by Bain in 1993, and not closed down until 2001. Second, one cause of the closure was a strike by the plant’s unionized workers. Third, Romney was no longer running Bain when GST went bankrupt. Fourth, the steelworker’s wife had her own job, and her own health insurance, and wasn’t covered by GST Steel. Fifth, she lost that job for reasons having nothing to do with Bain, Romney, or GST Steel. Sixth, her illness was diagnosed in 2006, five years after bankruptcy, when Romney was running the state of Massachusetts.

This is perhaps the single most mendacious political hit piece ever produce by a presidential campaign -- and make no mistake, the super PAC that produced it is run by Obama cronies and confidants. When Obama campaign officials were called on the deceptions in the ad, they dissembled some more, claiming that they had no knowledge about the steelworker’s claims, even though the Obama campaign had used him as a surrogate speaker -- on a conference call with the media, no less.

In a spoof that should have embarrassed the president’s handlers, the satirical news site The Onion blared out a headline: “Romney Murdered JonBenét Ramsey, New Obama Campaign Ad Alleges.”

A presidential campaign can be a teachable moment for the nation, especially one in which the political players have been deferring action on budget, tax, and entitlement program policies that are bankrupting the nation. Americans have not been getting that campaign in 2012, but there is still a chance in the series of debates that begin tonight.

“No one will confuse the dialogue taking place this year with the Lincoln-Douglas debates,” former Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, a Democrat, told RCP this week. “It’s all been tactical. But in the debates, maybe they will rise to the occasion. The first debate is supposed to be about the role of government. Maybe they will engage that subject in a serious way.”

Former Michigan Gov. John Engler, shortly after appearing with Bayh at a bipartisan forum at the Ronald Reagan Building Tuesday night, echoed that thought. “I hope the debate moderator will get these candidates to tell us precisely what they have in mind when it comes to addressing the massive national agenda before us,” he said. “There is work to be done.”

It’s an optimistic thought, perhaps over-optimistic, and the question remains about whether Americans have been conditioned to listen to such a discussion, whether the media would report it that way even if the candidates cooperated, and -- mostly -- whether these candidates or their stage managers are even inclined toward serious discourse.

Maverick political consultant Mark McKinnon notes that in a tight race, the impulse is usually to play it safe, which means sticking to the script. “In a campaign that everyone expected to be very close, I think decisions were made by both camps that telling hard truths and proposing bold solutions would be risky,” McKinnon said.

The Washington Post is right -- we do deserve better. These candidates are always invoking God’s blessing on the United States of America. But they could do their part by gracing us with a mature discussion of the challenges ahead. 

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Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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