A Mixed Review

Alan M. Kraut, October 2012

Alan M. KrautPresidential debates rarely meet the standards of excitement and revelation set for them by media pundits. Those who study Presidential campaigns differ markedly over whether televised debates have ever made a difference in an election’s outcome at all.  However, the debates as educational television? Well, that is another matter. This reviewer gave last night’s show a mixed review.

Unlike some previous presidential debates, President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney had little difficulty defining lines of  disagreement. Exchanges over job creation, reduction of the federal debt, entitlements, the level of federal regulation, and healthcare all unleashed an avalanche of numbers and echoes of the positions articulated by both candidates on so many previous occasions in the campaign. No surprises here. There was little humor amidst the dueling accusations of indifference to the well-being of the American middle class. Only Romney’s assurance that he liked Big Bird, but would slash the budget to eliminate federal assistance to PBS anyway, offered even the possibility of a chuckle. Romney seemed crisp and aggressive. Obama, more like a prize-fighter stunned because his opponent was more aggressive than his sparring partner had been during pre-fight training. Most of the ringside scorers were in agreement. No knockout; round one to Romney on points.

But what did the historian see? For this historian the meat was not in the disagreement over the numbers, but in the clarity of the clash of political philosophies that inspired the jabbing and counter-punching. The debate opened a window wide on one of the fundamental divides in our national political discourse: the proper role of the federal government in the lives of Americans. It was worth the wait and warmed the heart to hear Barack Obama say that government has the capacity to create “ladders of opportunity” and to offer an example that was not Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson. That would be too easy and predictable. Instead he reminded his audience that a Republican, Abraham Lincoln, had sought to create “ladders of opportunity” with the use of federal funds to complete the transcontinental railroad, create land grant colleges, and establish the National Research Council. Why? Because Lincoln believed that “some things we do better together.”

Romney’s response? Not an embrace of Obama’s take on Lincoln, but an emotional reference to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which Romney  reads as limiting government’s role to the protection of life, liberty, and the individuals’ rights avail themselves of  opportunity unencumbered by “trickle down  government.” What about opportunity for those at the bottom?  Highly desirable, but best left to the states or to the voluntary and caring spirit of others. Definitely not the responsibility of the federal government, according to the former Massachusetts governor.

I hope my students heard the debate. If it accomplished little else, the candidates’ exchange reminded Americans of a perennial divide that bifurcates American political discourse. This year’s election is a crucial one, but not just because of the recession and ongoing suffering of jobless Americans. The candidates’ disparate views on the federal government’s proper role offer voters a clearly defined choice between those who think we need to do some things together for the common good and those who fear that trickles of government will become a flood that drowns freedom. 

Inexplicably missing from the discussion of the economy and the federal government’s proper role was any mention of immigration and the badly needed reform of immigration policy. Fortunately for both candidates, immigration seems not to be quite the focus of voter interest that it was before the recession. Among registered voters, 41% consider immigration a “very important” determinant of their vote, the lowest of twelve issues tested by the Pew Research Center, down 11.0 percentage points from 2008. However, a recent analysis by the Pew Hispanic Center reports that a record 24 million Latinos are eligible to vote in the 2012 election. That is an increase by more than 4 million or 22 percent since 2008. Neither candidate can afford to neglect that community which has been most vocal in its demands for the comprehensive immigration reform that President Obama promised in 2008.

In 1951, the late historian Oscar Handlin reminded us that “the immigrants were American history.” We remain a nation of nations and to omit any mention of immigration’s controversial role in American economic recovery and state laws, such as those in Arizona, to exclude undocumented arrivals in the absence of federal immigration reform seemed a glaring omission by the moderator, Jim Lehrer, who decided on the topics to be addressed and follow-up questions.

Bring on Round Two!

Alan M. Kraut is University Professor of History at American University, Washington, D.C.