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Debates Are Last Chance for Conversation We Deserve

Debates Are Last Chance for Conversation We Deserve

By Carl M. Cannon - October 3, 2012


As the 2012 presidential campaign got underway, the nation needed -- and much of the country wanted -- an adult discussion about the size and scope of government. In political science, this subject is known as federalism. It's the turf battle between local, state, and federal government.

In the era of the Tea Party, federalism has acquired an even more expansive meaning. How much government involvement in daily life does the Constitution allow for? How much do Americans want? How much they are willing to pay for? These are the cosmic questions everyday Americans are arguing about, along with the associated question of which major political party is best suited to arbitrate these issues.

Instead, U.S. voters have been subjected to a nine-month barrage of witless blather -- often in the form of negative TV ads or ad hominem personal attacks -- about Mitt Romney’s taxes and religion, Ann Romney’s horse, the Romney family dog, whether young Barack Obama ate dogs, about grown-up Barack Obama’s accent, whether Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren is part Cherokee, whether her opponent Scott Brown and other Republicans are waging a “war on women,” and whether Democrats are waging a “war on faith.”

In an editorial before the two national nominating conventions, The Washington Post succinctly summed up the 2012 campaign: “The American people deserve better.”

But these candidates don’t trust the voters to understand the basic math of the federal budget, and don’t respect them enough to tell them the truth about difficult issues. Moreover, they are imperious to shame. When caught lying, they tell a new lie. When asked for specifics about one of their policy “proposals,” they shrug and move on to the next talking point.

The most frivolous treatment of a serious issue this entire campaign season may have been Mitt Romney’s proposed solution for how America should address its broken immigration policies, specifically what to do about the estimated 12 million people living in the United States who came here illegally but have put down roots, taken jobs, assimilated themselves into communities, and had children.

To this intractable public policy question, Romney proposed during a Republican primary debate an astonishingly primitive solution. “The answer,” he said, “is self-deportation.”

Romney has continued these shortcuts as a general election candidate, perhaps most notably airing an ad accusing the president of taking action to “drop work requirements” in the 1990s welfare reform law signed by Bill Clinton. “Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and you wouldn’t have to train for a job,” the ad continued. “They just send you your welfare check.”

The trouble here is that there is no “Obama plan.” The administration was mostly responding to waiver requests filed by governors of the states -- yes, that’s a federalism issue -- two of whom are Republicans.

The Democrats have not been slackers in the art of trivializing important public policy questions, either. Romney’s selection of budget-cutting House member Paul Ryan as his running mate could have jump-started a serious dialogue between the two parties about how the nation’s huge entitlement programs -- Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security -- should be reformed to make them sustainable. Ryan has proposed some interesting and specific ideas in this area, particularly regarding Medicare.

They may be good ideas, and they may be bad ones. But instead of engaging them, the Democrats took to attacking Ryan personally, deliberately mischaracterizing his proposals. Although the House Republican plan specifically requires insurance companies to offer coverage to all Medicare beneficiaries, Democratic Party Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz falsely claimed that the GOP plan would deny health care to seniors with preexisting medical conditions. Actually, the way she put it, with a straight face, was that Republicans “would throw you to the wolves.”

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Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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