Nothing makes me want to swap all the political reporters in America for one night than a Presidential debate. The frustrated theater critic in all of them come out when they opine intensely about this candidate being tired or that one being energetic or this one looking down too much or that one looking at his opponent. I think the ABC News roundup of “telling gestures and emotions” pretty much sums it up.
What jumped out at me, and I suspect the public, was that you had Jim Lehrer come out and start with this question: “What are the major differences between the two of you about how you would go about creating new jobs?” The theme of his questions for the night, trying to see if two people vying for the Presidency are running on different platforms, was ridiculous. But the question concerned jobs. The next 15 minutes sauntered into a discussion about taxes. Then the deficit. Then “entitlements” (Obama actually meekly tried to push back on the use of that word).
This was the great disconnect for me. There is a fire in America that has not been put out. And Washington wants to ignore the existence of that fire. So they hold very serious discussions about the color of the drapes and the placement of the dining room table and the pattern of the wallpaper. In the burning building. And inevitably, this rebounds badly on the President. He of course doesn’t want to talk about the jobs crisis, because it’s still with us four years after the last election. His stimulus package did a decent job, but obviously not enough. And the reason Mitt Romney has been perceived to have won the debate is that, on three separate occasions, he got to say something like this:
My priority is putting people back to work in America. They’re suffering in this country. And we talk about evidence. Look at the evidence of the last four years. It’s absolutely extraordinary. We’ve got 23 million people out of work or stopped looking for work in this country. It’s just — it’s — we’ve got — when the president took office, 32 million people on food stamps; 47 million on food stamps today; economic growth this year slower than last year, and last year slower than the year before.
Going forward with the status quo is not going to cut it for the American people who are struggling today.
This is slightly wrong: the 23 million figure includes those who have part-time work and want more hours. But it’s the fundamental question in this country. President Obama said early on that “the question is not where we’ve been, but where we’re going.” But I think what people wanted to hear about last night is where we are. This profile of students in Merced, one of the struggling towns in California’s Central Valley, speaks to that:
The city has the nation’s second highest foreclosure rate and an unemployment rate that at 17.5% is twice the national average. It is also a city that is nearly 50% Latino, a voting block both candidates are trying to woo.
“We’re on just about every list it seems like,” said Mike Murphy, a Republican and Merced city councilman who helped lead a community discussion on the University of California-Merced campus after the debate. “People’s priorities here (are) jobs, jobs, jobs.” […]
People in Merced want “to see what either administration is going to do with unemployment and foreclosures,” said Josh Pedrozo, a Democrat and Merced city councilman who also helped lead the post debate discussion.
“Merced is ground zero for all of those concerns,” said Dorie Perez, a Merced native who is pursuing her doctorate in political science at the local University of California campus. “I want a plan and articulation of policies that I haven’t seen. I want the bread and butter.”
Most of these issues were left unaddressed; the only discussion of housing concerned the qualified residential mortgage rule, which is really stunning. But one candidate, Gov. Romney, could at least credibly articulate the fire, even if he had no plan to put it out. The President made a minor effort right at the start to say that he has brought 5 million private sector jobs back since the nadir, but it didn’t really register.
Ultimately, these debates don’t matter much electorally. What does matter is that it shows the focus of the political class. One is exploiting the jobs crisis without a plan to fix it, and the other doesn’t want you to know it’s there.