After many observers concluded that GOP candidate Mitt Romney’s standing improved after a strong performance in the first presidential debate, the stakes for the remaining debates rose sharply. In this close election year, the race is tight and both candidates are struggling to win over independent voters. Did the second debate move the numbers again? Did either candidate emerge with increased momentum and energy?
On Wednesday, October 17, Brookings expert Philip Wallach responded to questions and took your comments about the debate in a live web chat moderated by Vivyan Tran of POLITICO. Read the full transcript of the chat below.
12:30 Vivyan Tran: Welcome everyone, let’s get started!
12:30 Philip Wallach: Hi, I’m Phil Wallach, a Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution (https://www.brookings.edu/experts/wallachp). My areas of expertise are regulation and fiscal policy, but I’ll do my best to cover whatever folks are interested in. Looking forward to a good discussion!
12:31 Comment from Anonymous: Simple question — who won the debate?
12:31 Philip Wallach: Anonymous gets right to the point!
Many people are saying Obama, almost nobody is saying Romney—I guess that means Obama won. Voters who didn’t tune in are mostly going to hear some variation on, “Whereas the President looked wearied and unenthusiastic in the first debate, in the second he seemed energized and eager to make his case aggressively.” That can’t be bad for Obama.
I’m going to mostly try to avoid grand pronouncements about the “atmospherics,” though. I tend to be somewhat tone-deaf about these things, and I’m more interested in the substance. On that front, I thought it was a close debate, with both candidates making some extremely effective attacks on their opponent but having a harder time laying out a really compelling account of their own agenda. I look forward to answering as many questions as I can that dig into the policy questions from the debate.
12:32 Comment from Marion: Oops sent early – My question is: political scientists generally claim that debates do little to sway elections. But could the social media effect change that? As in – what the candidates say or don’t say might not matter. But could the Internet’s interpretation of what they say move votes?
12:33 Philip Wallach: This is a great question. I don’t have a clear answer for you, but a couple things are worth noting. First, specialized media make it easier for people to read things they’ll agree with about the debates and avoid judgments they don’t like, so that might blunt the effect of whatever judgment you think “the Internet” rendered. Second, when it comes to rendering debate judgments, my sense is that social media might end up dragged along to follow the traditional media, which is still clearly extremely influential.
12:34 Comment from Marshall, CA: Some people are calling this debate “scrappy.” Do you think that applies? It seems a little too positive a word for their bickering…
12:35 Philip Wallach: Gerald Seib at the WSJ called it “the least decorous debate” in American history, and he’s probably right. It certainly made for good television, but I wonder if it’s harmful to the prospects of really substantive discussion.
12:36 Comment from Abigail: Obama repeatedly mentioned that Romney’s tax plan was bad math. Is this true? How would Romney pay for the across the board tax cuts?
12:37 Philip Wallach: Obama did this in the first debate, too, though it wasn’t talked about as much as his demeanor. I have a bunch to say about this issue.
12:37 Philip Wallach: Obama’s attacks on Romney’s tax plans as impossible have a familiar ring to them. This whole line of debate between the candidates rhymes historically with the 1980 campaign, when President Carter said that Ronald Reagan’s simultaneous proposals to cut taxes, increase military spending, and balance the budget couldn’t all be realized (see http://www.debates.org/index.php?page=october-28-1980-debate-transcript). Say what you will about Carter and Reagan, but this attack was absolutely correct: budget deficits went way up during his two terms. President Obama is absolutely right to push Governor Romney on these points.
12:38 Philip Wallach: To be fair, Romney is also right to push Obama on his record when it comes to tax policy and deficits. The Obama campaign’s official line is that he’s a middle-class tax cutter, but will solve America’s budget imbalance by “asking the rich to do a little bit more.” Unfortunately, that doesn’t add up, either. Obama’s FY2013 budget proposal (http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/budget/fy2013/assets/tables.pdf) has us adding $6.7 trillion to the national debt over the next decade.
12:39 Philip Wallach: Neither candidate wants to push too hard on these points, though, because they figure voters don’t really want to hear how bad the arithmetic really is (I argued the point here: https://www.brookings.edu/research/opinions/2012/08/31-campaign-issues-wallach).
12:39 Comment from Joe : Do you think the current format of debates (limited time, no direct questions, moderator interference) lends itself to all the interruptions and “Let me get back to what he said 15 minutes ago” moments?
12:41 Philip Wallach: Getting lots of questions about the moderators, and surely it’s a matter of taste which ones you prefer. I think Joe’s question really gets it right, though: given a more flexible format, we’re going to end up talking more about the moderators. If you go back to older debates, they are far more structured and the candidates follow the time guidelines better, so the moderators seem less important.
12:42 Comment from MD: Do you think the public’s tolerance or interest in these “controlled” debates will lessen as we grow more and more used to direct interaction with celebrities/politicians through social media/the Internet as a whole? Are we becoming more attuned to how fake or calculated their responses/talking points are?
12:43 Philip Wallach: As you can see from MD’s questions, though, some people see this completely differently. If there was one word I wouldn’t use to describe last night’s debate, it would be “controlled.” Politics is always going to be somewhat artificial, and for my own part I think we’re better off if we’re talking about the stylized points the candidates want to make rather than how they make them.
12:44 Comment from Reader in Maryland: So then a question on regulation – we haven’t heard as much in the campaign as I expected about the “evils of regulations” and how they harm job growth. It came up a bit last night. Do you think Obama has a good record on this issue? Should Romney be hammering him more on his regulatory policies?
12:45 Philip Wallach: Reader is right, regulation was actually discussed more in the first debate (when Romney talked a lot about Dodd-Frank). There were a few moments last night worth noting, though.
12:46 Philip Wallach: Romney went on the offensive about Obama’s EPA’s coal policies, saying that they had effectively banned building new coal plants. He’s talking about the EPA’s new greenhouse gas rules for stationary sources under the Clean Air Act (see http://epa.gov/carbonpollutionstandard/pdfs/20120327factsheet.pdf). He’s right that the rule will effectively ban the construction of new coal plants unless they use (not-yet-commercially-viable) carbon sequestration technologies. The EPA is promulgating this rule pursuant to the 2007 Supreme Court ruling, Massachusetts v. EPA, rather than a specific legislative decision—and that is pretty remarkable, even if natural gas would be ascendant for economic reasons.
12:47 Philip Wallach: Much as I care about these issues, though, Romney may have decided that the American people aren’t tuned in enough to make them central focuses of his campaign.
12:48 Comment from Xoff: Seeing Romney move to the center on his proposal may help him attract undecided independents. But with a very divided Congress can he, or Obama for that matter, pull these reforms off without carrying both House and Senate?
12:49 Philip Wallach: This is an important question…in a sense, about the future of American government! Reform is definitely going to be much harder for either candidate than they are likely to admit during campaign season.
12:49 Philip Wallach: The question of the night, from Mary Follano, got at this point regarding tax reform: basically, she said, I like my middle-class tax-expenditures very much, thank you, and don’t want them taken away as a part of tax reform! Her question highlights why it is so much easier to talk about how wonderful tax reform is than to actually make it happen politically. It might be easier politically to impose a cap on total deductions—as Romney has been proposing (see http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2012/10/04/why-deduction-caps-are-a-great-idea/). Then again, this is basically the idea behind the Alternative Minimum Tax, and both political parties scramble to make sure that doesn’t affect middle-class taxpayers on an annual basis. So it will take some real political vision and leadership to make tax reform happen.
12:50 Comment from Westley: A lot of the debate—and the new “women in binders” meme—seemed to be aimed at female voters. Who won and who lost there, if anybody?
12:51 Philip Wallach: Many, many questions about the “women in binders.” Figuring out what effect this will have is above my pay grade—though if I had to take a guess, I would say that nobody will remember it two months from now. The bigger issue is whether Romney is connecting with women—since, after all, they are the majority of the electorate.
12:52 Comment from John Willson: When discussing the administration’s bailout of General Motors, Romney is reluctant to bring up Obama’s Delphi Pension Scandal. Why won’t he use the destruction of 20,000 plus non-union pensions to highlight the administration’s cronyism?
12:54 Philip Wallach: John, this is a good question. At first blush, it seems like a promising way to counter-punch on the auto bailout stuff. My sense is that there is less there than it seems, though. The devil is in the details, and the GAO report which gets into those details (http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-12-909T) doesn’t immediately scream “scandal” to me.
12:54 Comment from Xander: Are there historical examples of when and how debates actually changed the course of a campaign?
12:56 Philip Wallach: Mostly not, and that’s important to keep in mind. The closest calls that I know of are 1960 and 1980. In both cases, the “atmospherics” really killed one candidate (Nixon and Carter) and helped the other (Kennedy and Reagan). I’m doubtful that we’ve seen such a decisive edge for either candidate this time around.
12:56 Comment from Teresa: Because neither offered a compelling vision for the next four years, what do you see as the two or three domestic policy issues that will dominate an Obama and Romney administration?
12:58 Philip Wallach: Well, the demands of fiscal policy on either candidate are going to be extreme—starting with the fiscal cliff, which has amazingly gone unmentioned in the debates. Getting beyond those challenges is going to be very tough for either candidate, especially since it’s now inconceivable that either party will hold all of the Presidency, the House, and 60 seats in the Senate.
12:58 Comment from Katie: How does one explain the confusing economics of low gas prices mean the economy was on the decline versus today when gas prices are out of control (and the economy is still not back)
12:59 Philip Wallach: I was hoping for this question, Katie! When Romney stooped to making the gas price argument (the price of a gallon was under $2 when Obama took office, now it’s around $4, therefore the President’s energy policies are a failure), Obama had what I thought was his best moment of the night. He clearly explained that the reason for the low, low price was the sorry state of the world economy at that moment—and then suggested that Romney’s financial regulation policies might treat us to a repeat of that calamity, allowing him to bring those low prices back. The barb is certainly highly debatable, though it earned the President a laugh, but the explanation of prices in January 2009 is just indisputably correct.
12:59 Philip Wallach: I thought Obama was perfectly lucid on the point, but I don’t know if it’s enough to get through to voters who just know how much they hate the high prices.
1:00 Philip Wallach: That’s all the time we’ve got here, sorry I couldn’t get to more questions! Thanks for joining me today, it’s been a pleasure. You can follow me on Twitter at @PhilipWallach. I’m a low volume, high signal-to-noise tweeter.
1:00 Vivyan Tran: Thanks for the questions everyone, see you next week.