The Agenda

Post-Debate Assessments

The Corner has a number of smart takes. Check out the posts by Jonah, Diana Furchtgott-Roth (on the gender wage gap, which Ramesh has also addressed), and Yuval. I particularly appreciated Yuval’s judicious take on the site of the debate:

When the debate commission announced that this year’s town-hall debate—in which questioners would be selected from among undecided voters in the surrounding region—would be held in Long Island, NY, rather than in a swing state, it raised a few eyebrows. Undecided voters in Nassau County generally aren’t like undecided voters in Ohio or Virginia. They tend to be people who start from a liberal foundation but may be a little too populist to be comfortably Democratic voters these days, and so in some respects a kind of mirror image of what we normally think of as swing voters. The questions in Tuesday night’s town-hall debate certainly reflected that character. These were, on the whole, questions from disappointed Democrats. That didn’t necessarily advantage one candidate over the other: It meant some of the subjects taken up in the debate heavily favored Obama but it also meant that the tone of the questioners was almost uniformly disappointed with Obama, which is probably the most dangerous of all attitudes for the incumbent president.

Ramesh’s assessment of the debate at Bloomberg View is close to my own. 

I found the debate painful to watch for a number of reasons. Mitt Romney’s answer to the first question, about the labor market for recent college graduates, was an opportunity for him to articulate either (a) his mental model of why the recovery has been so weak or (b) the role of public policy in encouraging human capital investment, or both. Though Romney touched on (b), he mainly asserted that he would deliver a better economy without giving a clear sense of how he’d do that. Throughout the debate, Romney did press his case for his five-point plan, with a particular emphasis on domestic energy production. But Romney’s reply to the first question should have built a foundation for the rest of the debate. The president, meanwhile, offered a more plausible-sounding reply to the first question, and I think it gave him a lift throughout the rest of the debate. The first reply also matters because, in my anecdotal experience, viewers have a limited appetite for watching these debates, and the impressions made during the first few minutes count. I include myself among those who found this debate wearisome. 

In light of Yuval’s observation about the tenor of the questions from the audience throughout the debate, I wonder how political journalists would have reacted to a parallel-universe audience of disgruntled conservatives who didn’t believe that Mitt Romney was sufficiently opposed to big government solutions. That would have been a stimulating debate to watch. 

David Frum of The Daily Beast and Josh Barro of Bloomberg View both lament the fatuousness of the economic analysis offered by Romney and Obama alike. Frum raises an important point. One of the deeper issues facing American workers is that many service jobs that had been nontradable are now tradable, i.e., they can be offshored, and many others can be done by machines, and so something like the wrenching transformation of manufacturing has spread to other sectors. The candidates should be offering a theory of how this will impact less-skilled and mid-skilled workers and what public policy should do about it. Instead, according to Frum, we’re getting platitudes:

President Obama’s big idea is that government investment will trigger demand for skilled American labor. Even if this idea were workable, it implies a permanently larger role for government as employer and contractor. But what reason is there to think the idea workable? Government makes a bad enough investment banker when it is single-mindedly focused on a single goal, e.g., back winning technologies. Give the government a dual mandate – back winning technologies that also happen to drive wages upward – and wage and failure seem inevitable.

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney doesn’t seem to admit the question at all. He thinks like an employer, and that habit is so deeply engrained in him that nothing can change it, not even face-to-face questioning from people who see the world from a very different point of view. He envisions lots of jobs being created, but the wages piece doesn’t interest him very much – if, indeed, he sees higher wages as a good thing at all, which he well may not.

Josh Barro’s analysis is somewhat different, as he focuses on immediate challenges:

Romney repeatedly talked about his “five-point plan,” which is a rehash of Bush-era policies. It has no content aimed at the specific problems of our time: weak demand, high unemployment and a still-troubled housing market.

Obama touted his misguided fetish for manufacturing and green jobs, as though what America needs is the federal government deciding which industries should grow. He combined those talking points with platitudes about education.

That’s not to say I’m surprised. If Obama had a serious economic agenda, he would presumably be working to implement it. Instead, his administration appears resigned to plod along in a tepid recovery that will leave unemployment above 6 percent for years to come.

I imagine that I’m more sympathetic to Romney’s five-point plan than Josh, but I think the Romney campaign would do itself a great service by talking more about housing, the fiscal cliff, the headwinds facing the global economy, and what he intends to do about these challenges in the next six to twelve months.  

And finally, Phil Klein of the Washington Examiner had a lively exchange with an Obama campaign spokesperson about the president’s budget proposals. 


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