Presidential Debate of October 16, 2012: AHA Roundtable

Absence of Culture-War Controversy

Jonathan Zimmerman, October 2012

Jonathan ZimmermanIf you’re an American liberal, like I am, you have probably spent the past 30 or so years complaining that cultural issues—like abortion and same-sex marriage—have drowned out economic ones in our national political discourse. Republicans can’t win on the economy, the story goes, so they try to pull the wool over voters’ eyes by waging a culture war. 

It’s time to lay that tale to rest. To me, the most remarkable feature of last night’s debate was the almost complete absence of culture-war controversy. Yes, the candidates sparred briefly about Planned Parenthood and guns. Significantly, though, President Obama phrased his own support for Planned Parenthood in economic terms: the organization is a health-care provider, he said, so protecting it is a “pocketbook issue.” And he got no real pushback from Mitt Romney, who seemed eager to bring the debate back to, yes, economic issues.

And when Obama was challenged on his own economic record, I was half- expecting him to channel his inner Harry Truman and blame the “Do-Nothing” Congress. He didn’t. In part, of course, that’s because his own party controlled Congress for the first two years of his presidency. But I also realized that the presidency now looms so large in voters’ minds—and Congress looms so small—that blaming the people who make our laws simply diminishes the guy who signs or vetoes them. Congress’ approval rating is much lower than Obama’s, so he must have been tempted to pile on. But it was probably wise of him not to do so.

Romney, meanwhile, struggled to highlight his achievements as a governor. According to another piece of conventional wisdom, ex-governors play much better on the national stage than members of Congress do: they’re chief executives, after all, so they can make real decisions with real consequences for their states. And remember, four of the last five presidents before Obama were former governors. But none of them governed a state as liberal as Massachusetts, where—as Obama pointed out last night—Romney mandated health insurance and banned assault weapons. True, Ronald Reagan signed one of the nation’s most liberal abortion laws when he was governor of California. But Reagan’s party wasn’t as vehemently pro-life then as it is now, so he didn’t have to pay such a big price for his shifting positions on abortion and much else. Romney will.

Mitt Romney was also an openly environmentalist governor, despite his drill-baby-drill rhetoric last night. But the candidates’ exchange on “energy” was nearly devoid of references to pollution, which should send shivers down the spine of anyone who cares about the environment. Neither man uttered the term “global warming,” which has yet to be heard in a national debate this fall. Nor did either of them ever suggest that Americans should consume less energy; the last president to do that was Jimmy Carter, and the story didn’t end well (for him). Instead, they jousted about who would extract more oil, gas, and coal from the ground. You’d have to go back 40 or 50 years to find an election when the environment mattered less.

Finally, the debate confirmed one of the saddest truisms of modern American politics: foreign policy doesn’t matter, either. Sure, the candidates squabbled for a bit about security at the Benghazi consulate, and Romney added the requisite GOP talking point about “apologizing for America.” But you could tell that his heart wasn’t in it. Ditto for our voters, who don’t seem to care about anything right now except their own economic health. We’re still at war overseas, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to last night’s debate. I can’t remember a time when Americans seemed less concerned with the rest of the world. And that’s bad news for America, and for everyone else.

Jonathan Zimmerman is professor of history and education and department chair at New York University.