Style over substance in US debates

When it comes to the US deficit both Obama and Romney are full of “a bunch of stuff”, as VP Biden is found of saying.

I’ve been doing the usual, sitting in a not so glamorous hotel in a town picked by the Presidential Debate Commission to host the latest rhetorical contest between the President and his Republican challenger.

This week it’s Long Island, New York – the vast stretch of suburbs to the east of Manhattan. As I’m reading and getting ready for Tuesday’s coverage, I’m also quietly thinking – why not be more daring and pick Paris, France, instead. But that might have seemed weird.

I’ve already told you about what is at stake for the candidate I’m assigned to cover – President Barack Obama. If you missed it, I can sum it up pretty easily.

What is at stake for the incumbent everything and I don’t think I’m overstating it. The polls show Romney ahead in several states and now leading nationally.

If the president has another debate where voters think he’s phoned it in (or is not altogether there), it will become increasingly unlikely he gets a second term.

I just reread the transcript from the first debate. (I know right now you are thinking just how exciting the life of a White House Correspondent can be).

It was striking because the debate reads a lot better in hindsight than it looked in the moment.

That makes me think that maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on the US domestic news media that seems to focus on the “appearance” aspect incessantly.

I suppose that stuff – body language and confidence level – does have an impact.

US deficit

But I’ve been focusing on the substance of what they said. How can I put this delicately?

They are both full of a “bunch of stuff” – (as Joe Biden appears fond of saying) – when it comes to the US deficit.

Every year during the Obama administration spent a trillion more dollars than it’s received by way of taxes.

Add up all the over-spending from this and previous administrations, and the US owes itself and others more than 16 trillion dollars. So what have both candidates been saying?

I’ll start with Obama’s claim that he has a plan to cut the annual deficit by 4 trillion dollars. That includes 1.9 trillion dollars to close corporate loopholes and raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans.

He has been promising to do that since he took office, but there’s no indication he’ll be able to get that plan passed in the US Congress.

His plan includes money the country will no longer be spending on wars, money which was borrowed to begin with.

Also included are nearly 1.8 trillion dollars of deficit reduction already passed by the Congress, which absolutely nobody in Washington believes will be implemented after the election.

Firing Big Bird

Now to Governor Mitt Romney. He successfully distracted Americans by talking about firing Big Bird.

For those who don’t know, he is a beloved yellow puppet in a children’s program Sesame Street, which is funded by the Public Broadcasting Company.

The amount the federal government gives to PBS is so ridiculously small compared to the rest of the federal budget.

Cutting Big Bird just won’t cut the deficit by any measurable amount.

The more important line that most people seemed to miss was what he said he would cut.

The Republican challenger simplified it by saying he would ask himself one question, “is the program so critical it’s worth borrowing money from China to pay for it? If not, I’ll get rid of it.”

Nice talking point, but what does it actually mean?

No one followed up with what isn’t worth it – food for the poor, healthcare for the elderly, education, clean air? It wasn’t asked or answered.

His Vice President running mate Paul Ryan made those choices relatively clear in his budget.

Basically all social services would be cut, some drastically. I can’t help but think if the politicians believe that, they should say it.

Americans don’t really understand the consequences of austerity.

They see it as something they hear Europeans are doing. According to polls a majority say they want government to do something about the deficit and national debt (the accumulation of the deficit over years).

I don’t think most understand that it means actually cutting many of the government programmes to which they have grown accustomed.

If they are going to be educated, the politicians need to be honest and tell Americans what cuts would mean to them and their local communities.

Then they can make an educated choice. Until then it’s not about real answers, but rather plucking Big Bird’s feathers and repeating empty promises.

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