To Be Discussed
The presidential debate should be a chance to discuss real policy differences.


Michael Tanner

Tonight’s presidential debate has been hyped as Mitt Romney’s last chance to change the narrative of his faltering campaign. That is likely an exaggeration, but there is no doubt that the stakes are high for both Romney and President Obama, more so than for the candidates in most past presidential campaigns. 

Although polls have tightened in the last few days, Romney still trails, and it’s an old adage in politics that if you are arguing that all the polls are wrong, you are losing. He needs a solid performance to show Americans that he is a viable alternative to the president. A majority of Americans would really rather not reelect the president, but elections are — contrary to Romney’s expectations — a choice, not a referendum. Romney needs to show not just that Obama has been a poor president but that Romney would be a better one.


As for President Obama, he has not yet closed the sale. For all Romney’s missteps, this remains a 2–3 point election. The president may have convinced Americans that Romney is not a nice guy, but he has yet to explain how another four years of his presidency would be any different from the last four.

Unfortunately for the American people, tonight is not likely to offer deep insight into the policies that either candidate would pursue over the next four years. Neither candidate is going to be mistaken for Lincoln or Douglas. And the history of these debates shows that they tend to focus on the trivial rather than big issues. Have a drink every time someone mentions the “47 percent” tonight.

Still, there are important issues to be discussed. Therefore, let me suggest a few questions that might be asked. 

For President Obama:

This year will be the fourth consecutive year that the U.S. government has run a budget deficit in excess of $1 trillion. The national debt has now crossed the $16 trillion mark, and that doesn’t even begin to take into account the unfunded liabilities of Social Security and Medicare. One key difference between you and Governor Romney in addressing deficits and the debt is your insistence that any budget deal include new tax revenues. Yet, according to a new study by the Democratic-leaning think tank Third Way, even if you went well beyond the tax increases you have already proposed — in fact, even if you raised the top tax rate on the wealthy to nearly 50 percent — the debt would still double as a share of the economy by 2040, and the deficit that year would be $3.3 trillion (in 2012 dollars). Therefore, do you still believe that we can balance the budget without significant cuts in spending and dramatic changes to entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security?

Speaking of entitlements: You accuse Governor Romney of wanting to “end Medicare as we know it.” Last year alone, Medicare ran an almost $300 billion shortfall. Your own administration estimates that, under the most optimistic scenario, the program faces $38 trillion in unfunded liabilities going forward. Do you actually have a plan to save “Medicare as we know it”? Isn’t it a simple fact that in the future seniors will either have to accept fewer benefits from Medicare or pay more out of their own pockets?