The substance centered around giant economic plans whose conception--let alone implementation--is opaque to practically all of us. Would most people know the difference if Obama had said Romney favored cutting $8 trillion in taxes instead of $5 trillion? Or if Romney had said Obama planned to cut $416 billion from Medicare instead of $716 billion?
Numbers that huge are difficult for most of us to assess unless we've got special expertise and/or gobs of free time. Instead, we assume that the candidate we favor is mostly telling the truth, while the other guy is spinning it somehow. Candidates vaguely reference "studies," but never go beyond that. Are there really "six studies" debunking Obama's critique of Romney's tax plan? At most, you might Google it (whereupon the sketchiness of Romney's citation becomes apparent). But even when you learn that the studies were conducted with biased motives, how do you know they're not accurate? Are you going to go read them and assess their validity? Am I?
The debate format--with its time constraint, vague questions, unwieldy numbers, and dearth of precise follow-ups--makes it very difficult to see who's telling the truth. If you're like me, you end up relying on trusted sources, or on your own assumptions about the candidates, or on the candidates' values as best you can discern them. And this is where Obama could have scored big, I think--turning the topics into questions of values rather than questions of numbers. Gay rights, women's rights, Romney's "47 percent" gaffe--these issues underscore crucial value differences between Obama and Romney. And voters understand values; we have them, too. And since values underpin specific economic proposals, if we only have 90 minutes I'd rather hear about values.
Instead of talking about my other reactions to the debate, which will depress you and me both, here are my reactions to the debate I wish I'd seen:
- That Jim Lehrer is one tough dude! Although he was a bit of a hardass with the time limits, I appreciated it, because it made things SO FAIR.
- Saying that a plan will help the middle class is useless unless you're willing to define it (everyone thinks they're "middle class"), which is why I appreciated that the candidates agreed to a definition prior to the debate, so that everyone could be on the same page.
- Obama really scored a zinger with that "47 percent" quip at the end. And the way he looked right into the camera during his closing? So intense--it gave me chills!
- The section of the debate on the pervasiveness of racial inequality really highlighted the difference between Obama's philosophy and Romney's. Of course they both know that America isn't "postracial!" I feel silly for fearing that they wouldn't talk about it.
- That new rule that both candidates are required to provide written citations on their websites the next day for everything they said in the debate the night before? Brilliant. And useful to me as a voter.
- Thank goodness women's issues played such a big role.
Did you watch the debates last night, dear readers? What did YOU think? I'm looking forward to your comments.