Two technocrats, dressed in dark suits and armed with their own versions of the truth, walked into a Denver auditorium for a presidential debate.
Then, both men forgot all about the people whose votes they want to win.
That description might sound like the start of the world's most boring airplane read or a Capitol Hill joke. But one day after the first presidential debate, that’s precisely how immigrant advocates and Latino civil rights groups are describing what happened in Denver Wednesday night. For Latino voters, and those concerned about immigrants and the rights of women, the Denver faceoff was a bewildering disappointment.
“I was utterly astonished by how disconnected they both seemed from America and the actual human beings who live here," said Mallika Dutt, president and CEO of breakthough, a New York-based international human rights nonprofit that advocates for women’s and immigrant’s causes.
“While they were up there talking about tax policy and deficits in the most abstract ways possible,” she said, “there are a lot of people in the country who are really hurting. There are a lot of people trying to find jobs, still struggling with foreclosures. People are really facing very tangible economic problems. Yet, you heard almost nothing about that.”
Last week, Dutt saw both men speak at the Clinton Global Initiative gathering in New York. There, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney gave an impassioned speech about his belief that the free enterprise system can deliver solutions to the world’s problems in both broad and specific ways, she said. Obama told compelling stories about human trafficking and its connection to all types of exploitation in the United States.
“Whatever our feelings about the politics, the central focus of what Gov. Romney and President Obama had to say was very human, very real,” Dutt said.
On Wednesday, Dutt heard the only mentions of foreclosure come in the form of admonitions of consumer and Wall Street greed, she said. Discriminatory lending practices and the stagnant wages leading up to the housing bubble went missing. She heard no mention at all of median wages or what she called the “insanely anachronistic,” debate taking shape in the country around birth control, abortion and women’s heath care -- just as the idea of educating and empowering women is taking root in other parts of the world, she said.
Most notably absent: any discussion, even a mention of immigration, the ways that the country’s population is changing and how policy could be used to help harness the benefits of those changes and address the challenges that come with them, she said.
“There is huge discussion around the Dreamers right now and how these young people might be given a pathway to become full members of society,” Dutt said. “Where was that last night?”
Former Gov. Romney went into the debate after having made news Monday with comments about Obama’s deferred action program. The program grants temporary deportation reprieves and work permits to certain young undocumented immigrants. Romney clarified his comments the following day with a promise to end the program, and committed to an unspecified type of immigration reform during his first year in office, said Clarissa Martínez De Castro, director of immigration and national campaigns at the National Council of La Raza, a Washington-based civil rights organization.
“It was very much like he took one step forward and two steps back this week,” Martínez said. “Immigration has become a lighting rod precisely because it is a distinct question that he has evaded … So, I think it was also an issue, if not the issue, that a lot of Latino voters expected to hear about last night.”
All the talk about tax policy, scaled-back spending and Romney’s commitment to lower tax rates but eliminate specified deductions, invest more deeply in the military and reduce the deficit, leaves a lot of questions about a full basket of domestic policy issues, she said.
Martínez noted that inside many Latino households the economic situation is grim: More Latinos than any other group live without health insurance. Hispanic unemployment sat just above 10 percent in September and the group's foreclosure rate is disproportionately high.
“Because we are a young population, education is deeply important, the training of our workforce for the future is crucial, the housing crisis, the future of social security, those cuts coming for people who aren’t senior citizens right now, all matter a great deal,” Martínez said. “What we didn’t hear is we know you exist, we want your votes and here’s where the investments are going to come from to secure your future, our future.”
Which tax policies and national debt levels help to produce a healthy economy that creates jobs came up more than once, said Martínez. The Affordable Care Act and what people who can afford health care can purchase on the private market -- should Romney win -- also got their time in the spotlight. But the differences between the two candidates and what their policies would mean in the lives of voters were muddled and ultimately lost in a sea of cold facts and figures, she said.
“It really devolved into a he-said, he-said battle of the numbers,” Martinez said. "It was as if the debate had nothing to do with the rest of us. So, going forward, it will be interesting to see if, indeed, the glaring omissions continue."
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Immigration is one of the country’s most explosive domestic issues. Lehrer didn’t raise the topic and neither candidate volunteered an opinion. The omission comes not more than 24 hours after GOP nominee <a href="http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/03/romney-dials-back-acceptance-of-obama-immigration-program/" target="_hplink">Mitt Romney confirmed he would discontinue</a> President Obama’s order to exempt most people who came here illegally as children from deportation. Romney’s not the only one who needs to face questioning about immigration. Why has Obama, a vocal advocate of comprehensive immigration reform, set a new record for deporting the most people for each year he’s served in office? Would either candidate reform the trend toward prison privatization that has made <a href="http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/story/2012-08-02/immigration-prison/56689394/1?bctid=1766833420001" target="_hplink">immigrant detention a multi-billion dollar industry</a>? The <a href="http://www.futuromediagroup.org/lusa/">host of Latino USA</a> and director of PBS' <a href="http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/lost-in-detention/" target="_hplink">“Lost in Detention”</a> wouldn’t have let immigration get swept under the rug. (Neither would Jorge Ramos or Maria Elena Salinas, who hosted <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/21/opinion/the-candidates-face-hispanic-voters.html">individual forums with the candidates</a> for Univision earlier this month.)
Remember when U.S. Rep. Todd Aikin (R-Mo.) rocked the political world with his comments about “legitimate rape?” At least 24 states legislatures have <a href="http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/health/story/2012-04-25/states-anti-abortion-legislation/54538866/1" target="_hplink">passed laws restricting abortion</a> over the last two years, while a controversy rages over whether the government should fund organizations that provide reproductive health coverage. (Romney said in March he would <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/13/mitt-romney-planned-parenthood_n_1343450.html" target="_hplink">“get rid” of Planned Parenthood</a>.) Yet the subject didn’t merit a mention Wednesday night by Lehrer’s reckoning. Gwen Iffel, who <a href="http://www.wnyc.org/articles/its-free-country/2012/sep/27/first-woman-moderator-men-given-favored-debates/" target="_hplink">moderated the vice-presidential debates in 2004 and 2008</a>, surely would have brought the issue up.
The Supreme Court’s decision on Citizen’s United changed the U.S. electoral landscape. The proliferation of super PACS and 501(c)4 organizations that don’t have to disclose their donors will help push the cost of this election cycle near a <a href="http://www.opensecrets.org/news/2012/08/2012-election-will-be-costliest-yet.html" target="_hplink">record-setting $6 billion</a>, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But campaign finance reform didn’t become a subject for debate. And while the candidates debated Wall Street regulation and the value of the Dodd-Frank reform, no one touched the issue of predatory lending that played a major role in the foreclosure disaster forced 4 million families from their homes, according the <em>New York Times</em>. Would <a href="http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/business/july-dec12/bailouts_09-14.html" target="_hplink">PBS News Hour senior correspondent Ray Suarez</a> have broached those topics?
Obama plugged his education plan “Race to the Top” during Wednesday night’s debate, but no one pressed him to explain the program’s role in sparking a <a href="http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/lookout/b-cs-chicago-teacher-strike-evaluation-system-looms-201903517.html" target="_hplink">massive teacher’s strike on the president’s political home turf of Chicago</a> this month. Romney said he favored a voucher system and wanted to grade schools so parents could shop around for alternatives. But who would end up in the best and worst schools in a system that is <a href="http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/reviving-the-goal-of-an-integrated-society-a-21st-century-challenge/orfield-reviving-the-goal-mlk-2009.pdf " target="_hplink">more segregated today than in the 1960s</a>? <br>The host of CNN’s morning program Starting Point wouldn’t have let the candidate’s off the hook without engaging them in a <a href="http://cnnpressroom.blogs.cnn.com/2011/05/05/soledad-o%E2%80%99brien-reports-on-students%E2%80%99-fight-to-get-the-education-needed-to-compete-in-the-global-marketplace/" target="_hplink">pointed discussion about inequality in the public education system</a>.
This year’s <a href="http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/washington/story/2012-08-14/unproductive-congress-not-passing-bills/57060096/1?csp=usattumblr" target="_hplink">Congress was the least productive since 1947</a>, according to <em>USA today</em>. Yet congressional gridlock didn’t become a topic of conversation at Wednesday’s debate. Instead, the candidates lobbed accusations at one another without parsing from the moderator. Obama faulted Romney of playing to his strident conservative base, while Romney lashed out at Obama for ramming his health care law through congress without Republican support. Who’s more correct? And who has a better chance of overcoming D.C. gridlock? <a href="http://www.cnn.com/CNN/anchors_reporters/johns.joe.html " target="_hplink">CNN’s congressional correspondent Joe Johns</a> likely would have prodded the candidates further. --- Photo: Republican presidential candidate, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum speaks after a campaign stop at Mary Ann's Diner as Joe Johns of CNN (R) asks a question January 9, 2012 in Derry, New Hampshire. Republican candidates have one final day of campaigning before New Hampshire holds its first in the nation primary tomorrow. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)