2012’s First Presidential Debate: What Do We Deserve to Know?

by Wendy Simmons | October 2, 2012 2:35 pm

[1]President Barack Obama arrives in Denver as the frontrunner for the first debate with Mitt Romney, set for Wednesday night. Obama has a slight lead in the polls nationally and an even larger lead in the swing states. Most Americans (54%) are expecting the president to win the first debate[2], vs. 28% expecting Romney to win.

No candidate wants the public to have high expectations for his performance. Simply put, it is much easier to exceed expectations if the expectations are low. (However, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie did not get this memo[3].)

Fortunately for Obama, the first debate is supposed to focus on domestic policy. Mitt Romney recently has made headway undermining Obama’s foreign policy in the wake of the Libya disaster in which four Americans, including the ambassador, were killed in what appears to have been a well-planned terrorist attack. The Romney campaign has been seizing on the recent unrest in the Middle East as evidence of failed Obama policies.

It is possible that moderator Jim Lehrer, of PBS, will take a slight detour to cover some of these recent events, but he likely will aim to keep the conversation concentrated on domestic policy.

Only Lehrer and his staff know which questions will be asked of the candidates. Presumably, though, we can expect him to focus on the issues most important to the American people: the economy generally, and jobs, deficits and the ‘fiscal cliff’ more specifically.

It’s hard to imagine either candidate will give us much more information than we already have about their policy positions and ideas. Romney reportedly had been practicing “zingers” for Obama in hopes of creating that dramatic moment of turnaround. The Obama campaign has been less clear, largely keeping their debate prep on the down-low.

But if Lehrer can push the candidates to introduce anything new and specific, the debate will be a success for the electorate.

While there is a laundry list of potentially great questions to ask on Wednesday night, here are three that ought to make the top of the list.

1) For both candidates, please name one specific tax loophole you are willing to close to bring down the deficit.

The answer to this should be easy. If the two candidates truly care about deficit and debt reduction (as they both claim to), they would immediately answer “yes, I will end the deduction for home mortgage interest.” It costs the federal government $100 billion a year[4] and benefits mainly the upper class.

Let’s do the math. $100 billion times 10 = $1 trillion. There appears to be a bipartisan agreement to cut $4 trillion from the deficit over 10 years. Eliminating this one deduction would get us 25% of the way there.

I’m not completely divorced from reality — neither candidate is actually going to suggest this as a possibility. I only suggest this as a possible answer to illustrate how little of substance has been said on the campaign trail so far.

This one expensive deduction is perhaps the most popular of all of the tax code distortions. Polling data reveals that large majorities of Americans oppose eliminating this break for homeowners[5]. Public opposition, coupled with the powerful real-estate and construction lobbies, makes this a political non-starter.

So, if Jim Lehr asks the candidates to name one specific thing to eliminate, we can watch them both dance around the question. Obama will talk about the need for a “balanced approach” and Romney will note that these “specifics” will be worked out once he has been elected.

2) President Obama: You claim that you will not raise taxes on families making less than $250,000/year. While this might seem like the fair thing to do, taxing the rich cannot by itself solve the deficit problem. You have personally acknowledged the need for a balanced approach of reforming entitlement programs and raising taxes on the wealthiest households. Do you think you can convince the Democrats in Congress to join you in pursuing entitlement reform?

If President Obama is re-elected, he will be in the somewhat unique position of leading at the end of his political life. He will never have to run for re-election again. This obviously is not true of most of the Democratic congressmen and women.

Obama might personally believe that a “grand bargain” of tax and entitlement reform is the best and perhaps only course to restore our country to fiscal health. However, the difficult cuts that will have to come to our most popular programs — Social Security and Medicare — will be a difficult sell to career politicians.

Indeed, as more and more baby boomers retire and begin collecting benefits (joining the 47% perhaps?), they will continue to provide strong opposition to any reduction of their expected benefits. While Obama himself won’t have to worry about those in retirement or close to it turning him out of office, his colleagues will.

The more important question is whether Obama can convince his own party to expand its focus from solely taxing the rich to also reforming entitlements.

3) Gov. Romney: You noted in a fundraiser that 47% of Americans are dependent on the government and cannot be persuaded to take personal responsibility for their own lives. How can you have hope for a country in which half of its people are irresponsible?

The bombshell video footage of Romney speaking to a room of wealthy donors — noting, among other things, that 47% of Americans don’t pay taxes[6], are dependent upon government and don’t take personal responsibility for their lives — has been analyzed ad nauseum over the past few weeks. What we have not heard from Romney, though, is a full-scale retraction of his comments … only slight clarifications of his words.

Lehrer should really push this issue. This worldview has real domestic policy implications. Presumably, Romney believes that as president he would have some responsibility to lead this 47% (which includes seniors, students and veterans) and would be crafting policy that affects them. Thus, we should know more about how his view of this group would affect his policy priorities and decisions.

What I think we’ll get is another non-answer about how he “inelegantly” stated the issue. The debate format will be one in which it will be a little bit harder to completely sidestep the question, but expect Romney to have rehearsed a way to do just that.

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  2. are expecting the president to win the first debate: http://www.quinnipiac.edu/institutes-and-centers/polling-institute/national/release-detail?ReleaseID=1801
  3. did not get this memo: http://www.cnn.com/2012/10/01/politics/crowley-christie/index.html
  4. $100 billion a year: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/07/why-the-mortgage-interest-deduction-is-terrible/259915/
  5. oppose eliminating this break for homeowners: http://www.gallup.com/poll/147125/Americans-Oppose-Eliminating-Income-Tax-Deductions%7D
  6. that 47% of Americans don’t pay taxes: https://investorplace.com/investorpolitics/romney-explains-secretly-recorded-victim-remarks/

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