Last night brought us Big Bird, Donald Trump, smirks, and a bizarre, almost out of control format that accomplished nothing. No, I'm not talking about some nightmare from poor Oscar the Grouch, but the first of three presidential debates.
I've been part of a Half in Ten and Every Child Matters (who, for full disclosure, I work for) #TalkPoverty campaign for a month now (and even wrote about it several weeks ago). Based on our Twitter feed, we have seen more engagement around the issue in the past week, and I think we were all cautiously optimistic that a direct question about poverty would be asked.
Now that's not to say it wasn't on the agenda, I suppose, but Jim Lehrer's "moderation" of the debate was abysmal. He didn't rein the candidates in and make them commit to his timetable, so he wasn't able to get even close to all the questions he wanted answered asked. I think he's probably wishing he would have stayed retired from all of this, after all.
However, all the blame for the lack of a discussion on poverty, and what I feel was a lack in substance overall, can't just be placed on Lehrer. The candidates had opportunities to pivot and address the 16.2 million children in the United States who are food insecure or the 15 percent of people living at or below the federal poverty line.
We can all understand why the candidates chose to focus on the middle class in some of their points, because that's where most of America finds itself. However, that is no excuse to not talk about our most vulnerable populations.
To his credit Gov. Romney did actually use the word "poverty" and noted the new Census Bureau numbers showing "1 out of 6 people in poverty." Romney also mentioned food stamps (or SNAP) and how the numbers have increased from 32 million to 47 million since President Obama took office.
However even with this mention of poverty he gave no clear solution to what his policies would do to address this issue and just said the "path we're taking is not working" and that "it's time for a new path."
That's all well and good, and will most certainly be fine with those in his base who are going to vote for him, anyway. But what about the roughly 6 percent of those likely to vote who are undecided? This voter, according to a recent poll and article by Reuters, is likely "female, white, lacking a college education, and making less than $25,000 a year." These undecided women are women who very likely struggle to put food on their table and worry about SNAP benefits, medical care or sustainable jobs.
Neither candidate appealed to those voters last night. In CNN's undecided voter focus group 16 of the 39 people involved made a decision with eight going for Romney and eight going for Obama, essentially bringing us back to square one... at least as far as the CNN focus group is concerned.
Obama isn't off the hook, either. The answer Romney gave, which I referenced above, could have been a perfect opportunity for him to either clearly lay out what he's doing (or has done) to address poverty or to challenge Romney first-hand on how he'll work to get those in poverty out of it if he is elected.
I know the conventional wisdom is that Romney won the debate, however, while I will agree he came more prepared and willing to engage than the president, I don't think either candidate came off well. The split screen made every smirk highly visible and, while entertaining for the audience at home, it didn't make either candidate look very presidential. The interrupting did nothing for me to and this is one of the places with Lehrer's failure was extremely apparent. He let himself be walked all over and it made for an uncomfortable viewing process. As Rachel Maddow said in her post-debate analysis, "we saw this debate format die a very painful death on camera tonight."
I hope Martha Raddatz, Candy Crowley and Bob Scheiffer took their notes on how not to moderate a debate and are prepared to get some real substance out of our candidates.
I also hope they'll make a provision banning Donald Trump's name from being mentioned in a debate again. Ever.