Election 2012

We Needed a Debate About America's Future. What We Got Was a Debate About the Past.


Practically the first words out of President Obama's mouth at last night's debate were "your future is bright." He was talking to a young man who asked about the tough job market for new college graduates. Obama assured him that he would help make sure that future stayed bright.

But the truth is that no matter who wins next month's election, America's future is hazy—and worryingly difficult to discern.

Indeed, last night's second presidential debate highlighted the biggest problem with this year's campaign: It's a fight over the past, with little to say about the serious policy challenges the country faces in the coming years.

Think of the policy debates that have defined this election season: cuts to Medicare, President Obama's health care overhaul, stimulus spending, defense spending reductions under the debt deal's sequester, high deficits and mounting debt levels, income tax cuts originally passed by President Bush and extended under President Obama.

Romney has repeatedly attacked Obama on all of these areas. Obama, in turn, has defended his record.

That's what we know about these candidates: that Romney is against what Obama has done, and that Obama is for it. And that's the basic choice that they're both offering. Like what Obama's done? He's your man. Disappointed by his presidency? Vote Romney.

It's a fight over the last four years. But what we need is a serious debate over the next four—and the next forty.

Think of the issues we haven't heard discussed nearly as much: the unconventional monetary policy now being pursued by the federal reserve, the fiscal cliff that threatens to shake markets and federal policymaking in just a few months, the ongoing financial problems in the Eurozone, the way the Supreme Court complicated ObamaCare's Medicaid expansion and the impact that block granting might have on the program. Not to mention Washington's inability to pass a budget or effectively manage the unsustainable entitlements that already eat up the bulk of federal spending each year, and are the biggest drivers of the long-term debt.

These are issues that will matter tremendously in coming months and years. Yet there was no mention of any of them at last night's debate. And there's been precious little extended discussion of them at any point by either campaign.

Instead, when it comes to looking ahead, both campaigns are asking voters to squint and hope that platitudes and vague promises eventually turn into plans.

Obama, for example, has been very clear about what he wouldn't do: cut tax rates on income earned above $250,000 annually. But when it comes to what he would do, the best he can offer is a $4 trillion debt reduction plan that doesn't add up. At last night's debate, Obama talked about the need to "control our own energy," by "building the energy sources of the future." But so far his government-directed green energy projects have mostly produced the expensive failures of today. Obama's second term would be a defense of his first.

Romney's policy ideas are equally vacuous. He has a set of tax andd spending proposals that dosn't add up and a five point jobs plan that is alternately implausible and unremarkable. He wants to achieve North American energy independence less than a decade, which won't happen (like Obama, Romney occasionally seemed to act as if he was running for Super CEO of the entire American energy market). He wants to expand trade with some countries while making it even harder to work with one of the world's fastest growing economies, China. He proposes job retraining programs of dubious value. He wants to reduce the deficit, but won't say which spending he'll cut. And he wants to "champion small business," which presumably means saying nice things about small business owners while perhaps reforming the tax code in some helpful but still unspecified way.

These are not solutions equal to the size of the country's economic and policy problems. They are hardly solutions at all.

Part of the problem is that the candidates are boxed in by the budget situation. The budget has been stretched to the point where the next presidency will be as much about paring back as expanding. That will require politically difficult choices. But rather than flesh out the arguments for which set of choices might work best, both candidates are instead acting evasive. Romney refuses to offer specifics; Obama is rumored to have a deficit plan that he and his advisers don't want to talk about. Rather than be the candidate making a case for a potentially unpopular plan, both candidates have essentially chosen to avoid plans altogether.

Lurking underneath all of this is a lingering unresolved debate about Obama's predecessor. Even though the candidates focused on the last four years, they were, in a way, also debating the eight years that preceded Obama. Perhaps the most revealing question of the night was when Mitt Romney was asked how he differentiates himself from President George W. Bush. Romney had almost nothing relevant to say. Which is not really a surprise: In his 2010 book, No Apology, he defended Bush's implementation of TARP and the 2008 stimulus, and had essentially nothing critical to say about the last Republican president. Bush is the specter that hangs over this election. Republicans cannot bring themselves to embrace his presidency—nor to meaningfully distance themselves from his failures.

The deeper tension, though, is not about particular presidents, but about national identity. The muddled messages from the candidates reflect a broader confusion, which is that America still doesn't know what kind of country it wants to be: an essentially small government state with relatively low tax rates and spending to match, or one with a somewhat larger and more dominant public sector, as well as the more robust tax revenues to support it.

So far, we have tried to have it both ways: lower taxes but higher spending. Eventually—soon—that will have to change. But no candidate wants to be the one to say so, and certainly not to spell out what, exactly, those changes will entail. The country's future may well be bright, as Obama says. But it's hard to know. Because both candidates are leading us into it blind.

NEXT: Rising Food Prices Make Dinner Spendier

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  1. Plenty of candidates are willing to say exactly what you say they’re not.

    Gary Johnson and Ron Paul, for example, who were beaten in the primary (and in the case of Johnson, won’t break 1% in the general — sadly, but realistically).

    Politics is the art of the possible.

    The deficit is pretty abstract, to a lot of people who never could get a C in algebra.

    1. Politics is the art of the absurd.

  2. Since you’re not paying attention, Romney’s proposals include lowering income tax rates, corp tax rates and cap gains taxes. And he proposes to drill more and will give the go ahead for the Keystone pipeline.

    These sound like fine ideas for freeing up the economy to me.

    Obama has no proposals or ideas that will spur growth.

    The meme that both guys are equally vague is annoying.

    1. Note that my post was directed at the author, not BarryD

    2. Also annoying is the “they’re no different” meme.

      We’re looking at a lifelong far-left-wing activist formerly New Party member, now Democrat, vs. a lifelong chamber-of-commerce Republican.

      Is either one a libertarian messiah like people think Ron Paul would be? No.

      They’re not going to push to legalize pot, privatize roads and parks, withdraw all troops back to the US from Korea or Europe, return us to the Gold Standard, or any other libertarian dream goals.

      But they’re not “the same” either.

      Get real.

    3. So is the “they’re both the same” meme.

      A lifelong far-left-wing activist, an authoritarian socialist philosophically, vs. a lifelong businessman and chamber-of-commerce Republican, both the same?

      Come on!

      Neither is going to be the Libertarian Messiah, and legalize drugs, eliminate Social Security and the military, privatize the National Parks and Interstate Highways, return us to the Gold Standard, and push for a repeal of the 16th Amendment.

      That doesn’t mean there’s no difference between them.

    4. The meme that both guys are the same is equally so.

      We have a far-left activist (member of the New Party just 10 years before he was elected as a Democrat) vs. a chamber of commerce Republican, philosophically speaking, authoritarian socialist vs. business-friendly “good government”.

      Now neither one is a libertarian. Certainly neither one is a libertarian Messiah like so many of the dumber people on our side seem to seek. I wouldn’t look for either one to legalize pot, privatize the National Parks, or eliminate Social Security.

      That doesn’t make them “the same” as I keep hearing.

      The libertarian bent for condemnation (see the attacks on Wayne Allan Root) is way too Judean People’s Front for me, and it’s not moving us in a libertarian direction.

      I’m not saying “vote Romney”. I’m saying that a lot of libertarians love to absolve ourselves of having to make grownup decisions, with the dumb justification “they’re all the same” and with terms like “Republicrat” — which have their place, but don’t solve anything.

  3. We Needed a Debate About America’s Future. What We Got Was a Debate About the Past.

    Shorter Suderman:

    Don’t talk about Obama’s record. That would be negative campaigning.

    1. And racist, to boot.

  4. Semi related, but I brought this up in the “Did Obama lie about Benghazi” thread last night, and it appears to have been confirmed.

    Obama never answered the question-

    Q: This question actually comes from a brain trust of my friends at Global Telecom Supply in Mineola yesterday. We were sitting around talking about Libya, and we were reading and became aware of reports that the State Department refused extra security for our embassy in Benghazi, Libya, prior to the attacks that killed four Americans. Who was it that denied enhanced security and why?

    Kerry was asked later that night about his question-


    As to Ladka’s question about who turned down the Benghazi security requests and why, Obama reportedly told him that “releasing the individual names of anyone in the State Department would really put them at risk,” Ladka says.

    He never answered the question.

    1. Glad I’m not the only one to notice that.

      1. The messed up part is if you parse through his non/sort of-answer, he says about a billion times that “the buck stops with him” etc.

        So is he saying that HE was the one who was responsible for denying enhanced security?

        Of course I know he doesn’t really mean that, and that still doesn’t answer the “why” part of the question.

        I just don’t understand why Romney didn’t immediately answer with “he never answered your question, did he.”

  5. Details loses elections. Specifics sink campaigns.

  6. I wonder if these politicians ever say to eachother, after the debates, “You know this shit’s just business, right?” ala that scene in Training Day where the Vatos pull Ethan Hawke outta the bathtub when they forego blowing his head off with the shotgun.

    1. I bet that Biden and Ryan did just that, but that Romney and Obama genuinely dislike each other down to their bones.

      1. That’s bullshit. I happen to know that right after the debate, they went out to a titty bar with some Secret Service agents.

        1. I thought Obama only liked men and klingons

          1. Well, to be honest, I didn’t go with them, so I don’t know what he paid for. Mitt’s into Asian chicks real hard, though.

            1. So, you’re saying vote Romney, he love you long time?

          2. Well, he married a wookie, so there’s a good chance he likes those too.

  7. Sounds like a solid plan to me dude. Wow.


  8. If you can’t discern a difference between Romney and Obama then I suggest you simply not vote because you’re certainly not doing anybody any favors by pulling a lever while suffering such profound ignorance.

    Here’s a clue. We are wrapping up 4 years of exploding government intervention in our personal lives and rocketing deficits. We are experiencing the worst run of unemployment in my lifetime (53 years). We have a government that casually ignores or tramples over various civil rights as it suits their purpose.

    That’s what we have right now.

    So if you’re convinced that it’s just as well to stay with this as choose an alternative, well maybe on election day you should spend your time smoking a bowl and pontificating with friends rather than muddying up the election process.

    1. I agree Obama’s been terrible. Which is why I support replacing him with Gary Johnson. Ever heard of him?

    2. I notice you sort of pussed out endorsing Romney as some sort of major change. You detailed all the things wrong with Obama, but you failed to do anything to point out why Romney is necessarily better. A .0211% lesser of two evils isn’t much of a reason to get enervated to march out to support Romney. It’s not like the pork is suddenly going to dry up, warrantless taps are going to suddenly disappear, taxes are going to go down, gun rights are going to be truly preserved (at the first sign of any real trouble the Feds will be collecting them in due course). 95% of the practical policies of the two parties are exactly the same. It’s the sheep deluding rhetoric that is different, the same red herrings busted out during every election cycle to give the dopes who vote a “choice”.

    3. Part II

      This country has gone up shit crick about 7 years ago to do much of anything about it now. The poop is going to hit the fan blades one why or another. For any real libertarian, it doesn’t matter who’s in charge when the body bags start getting used. Right or left is inconsequential. When the stomachs are empty, hardliners will be installed and anyone who believes in dying on their feet versus living on their knees is sceerreewed but good. The days of lesser of two evils went out the window when the Dems signed up for perpetual war for perpetual peace and the Repubs put in Medicare Part D. The two parties are virtually one in the same where it really matters when it comes to individual rights. When the Feds decide it’s self preservation time when all the ponzi schemes go tits up it isn’t going to matter a fig who is technically in power.

      1. Look, It’s fine if you don’t buy the lesser of two evils argument as a reason to vote for Romney.

        But knock off the false equivalency bullshit. Romney’s bad but Obama is fucking horrible.

        1. Obama’s horrible, but how do we know Romney isn’t worse? What proof is there? There’s no way you can trust or confidently predict what Mitt Romney will or will not do. For the record, I’m not saying Romney is worse or that they’re exactly the same, but just that we won’t know until Romney actually serves his term (if he’s elected). All the disagreements are around the edges of policy. They agree on the vast majority of what the federal government does

        2. Zaytsev, do note the qualifiers toolkien was using in his posts. “When the stomachs are empty,” “when the body bags start getting used,” when the Feds decide it’s self preservation time”: we aren’t there yet. I personally think that with Romney, we’ll still get there; it’ll just a take a bit longer than if O is re-elected, considering Romney actually has an understanding of the idea of profit and loss.

          But when we do get there (at least we’ll get to see how it affects Europe first.), I’m not disagreeing that either O or Romney will handle the social disorder from the Fiscapolypse in pretty much the same way.

          It won’t be good for any of us. I don’t see the collapse leading to greater liberty. The opposite, if anything.

  9. Obama is winner.That’s what we know about these candidates: that Romney is against what Obama has done, and that Obama is for it.

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