Friday, October 5, 2012

A few historically-related thoughts on the first debate

I spent the first presidential debate with an enthusiastic group of GFU students, preparing to be an "expert" on the talk-back professor Q&A panel that followed.  Our subsequent conversation was a rich one, and as consequence of all this I took a few notes that might perhaps be worth sharing as one historian's take...

ROMNEY: Proposed returning responsibility for job training to the states.
This sounded much like the "new federalism" of some Nixon era policies--and like the type of thing Mitt's dad, George, would very much have favored.  This concept of devolving power to the lowest practical level is nothing new (indeed, it's been part of the American political dialogue since our founding).  George, however, was equally concerned with fostering interactions between business and government that emphasized mutual responsibility.  Talking about devolution is all well and good (and we do need to keep trying new ideas); how do we put policy into practice?  This is the essential element I felt was missing.  It's an easy sell to small-government advocates to talk about devolution, but without accompanying structure they're just words.  Perhaps the structure of a debate does not allow for such detail, but it was a recurring theme for me, and not necessarily limited to one candidate or the other.

ROMNEY (but Obama didn't challenge this, so in a sense it refers to both): Three percent of small businesses employ half of all small-business employees.
If they employ that great a percentage, how can they still be considered "small businesses"?  Here's an example of where rhetoric (again, not necessarily limited to either side) overshadows critical thinking.  Small businesses are essential and should be protected and encouraged; "small business" has become a shibboleth.

OBAMA: A drop in revenues would lead to severe hardship for people, "but more importantly not help us grow."
Whaaaa?!  I'm sorry, but hardship trumps growth.  Taking care of the least of these is more important than an upward line on the stock market charts.  (I realize one can lead to the other, but the present "recovery" is a good demonstration that the correlation is far from absolute.)  Severe hardship should be a paramount concern for both parties.  Both Roosevelts (TR and FDR) are spinning in their graves...

ROMNEY: "Expensive things hurt families."
Here he was referring to something like taxes, and I'm sorry I don't remember the specifics... but what about such "expensive things" as Social Security and Medicare--each of which he'd spent the past several minutes defending in context of his programs proposals' ability to provide for their longterm stability.  Simplicity in everyday living = good.  Simplicity in politics = often problematic.  The world is more complicated than that.

BOTH: "Middle class families" [times a jillion]
Gee... what about the poor?  What about the working class?  What about single people?  What about empty nesters?  See above comment re: oversimplification.

I realize this is predominantly a list of quibbles, and while critical analysis is important I suspect we'd all be better off if we spent more time appreciating the positive.  In that spirit, here are a couple observations...

ROMNEY: That joke about how delighted Obama no doubt was to be spending his anniversary with him.
I see it as an unmitigated good that with this comment, well delivered and without a hint of malice, Romney demonstrated he has a sense of humor.  Obama has done so on other occasions.  Lightheartedness is, for me, an essential element in a president.  Nobody who can't take or make a joke should have their fingers anywhere near the nuclear trigger codes.

OBAMA: Health care rates have gone up less per year over the past two years than the average rate of increase over the previous 50 years.
First: yay for any deceleration in the rate of health care cost increases.  Second: a long-term historical view!  This pleased me greatly.  Our tendency to see the past as irrelevant to the present and the future harms humanity so.  Any time a politician of either party draws on historical context to give us a deeper and more relevant understanding of the present, I am a very happy camper.

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