The rhetoric of the Obama and Romney presidential campaigns has recently become harsher. Both sides have additionally issued highly misleading TV advertisements. The media have devoted significant attention to these controversies while sometimes failing to address underlying policy differences. Financial and health care reform notably deserve closer attention than they have received as of late.
Vice President Joe Biden has faced criticism for telling a racially diverse audience that, if Mitt Romney were elected president, he would "let the big banks once again write their own rules, unchain Wall Street" and "put you all back in chains." The Romney campaign took offense at these remarks, arguing that they were extremely misleading and divisive.
Biden's poor choice of words has effectively led part of the public and the media to look at his finger when he was pointing to the moon. The Republican Party staunchly opposed increasing financial regulation following the catastrophic 2008 financial crisis that was caused, to an extent, by the reckless investment strategies of certain Wall Street elements. Only three Republican House members and three Republican Senators voted for financial reform. The GOP affirmed that more financial regulation would worsen the stranglehold of "big government" over the economy by creating needless red tape. Romney himself depicted the relatively modest reform as gross overregulation. "Banks are afraid to make loans right now because of the government hanging over them like gargoyles," he said. Congressman Paul Ryan, his vice-presidential pick, voted against the new financial regulations, which run counter to his libertarian philosophy.
Whether Biden's reference to "unchaining Wall Street" was a proper metaphor or not, the facts demonstrate that the modern-day Republican Party is extremely averse to regulation in finance and other areas, from health care to environmental protection. Insofar as Biden was playing the so-called "race card" by telling his audience that Romney's stance towards Wall Street would "put you all back in chains," it was a counter-productive strategy given that the 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing Great Recession harmed Americans of all races and ethnicities. A compelling case for financial reform may be made by simply stating the facts and without resorting to language that is over-the-top.
Another major controversy has erupted over an ad issued by a Super PAC supporting Obama. The ad features Joe Soptic, a man who lost his job after his steel plant was closed in 2001 by Bain Capital, Romney's former company. The ad contends that, as a result, Soptic's family immediately lost its health insurance and that his wife died 22 days later because she could not afford proper care. In reality, Soptic's wife died around five years later. She also continued to have health insurance for a year.
The controversy over the Soptic ad is also eclipsing a broader analysis of Romney's approach to health care. The ad was utterly misleading in suggesting a simple cause-and-effect relationship: Romney closed the plant and then Soptic's wife died. However, Romney adamantly opposes efforts to establish a form of universal health care system in America. The fact that the United States is the only developed country without universal health care has led to the kinds of problems evoked in the Soptic ad: many people lack health insurance or lose it after being laid off, consequently struggle to pay for high medical costs, commonly face grave medical problems as a result, and sometimes die.
As with financial reform, a compelling case for health care reform may be made by simply stating the facts. Prior to the 2010 Democratic health care reform, around 50 million Americans lacked medical insurance while 25 million were seriously under-insured. Exorbitant medical bills already caused over 60 percent of U.S. bankruptcies in 2007, before the financial crisis and economic recession. Almost 80 percent of these persons had medical insurance but were ruined by out-of-pocket costs. Contrary to common misconceptions, this was not a problem faced primarily by poor people living idly "on welfare." Most of the bankrupted had attended college, owned homes, and had middle-class occupations. America was also the only developed country that let insurance companies deny coverage to people with preexisting medical conditions. Furthermore, nations with universal care have far lower medical costs than America and generally better health levels while ensuring treatment to everyone. Republicans nonetheless persuaded a large share of the public to oppose health care reform on the ground that America offered excellent access to treatment and that universal health care is too expensive.
There was a time when Romney seemed preoccupied with the absence of universal health care in America -- the kinds of issues that were (misleadingly) evoked in the Soptic ad. Of course, as governor of Massachusetts, he pushed for a state reform that actually became a model for "Obamacare." This appears to be what Romney intended, as he suggested that his plan could be a model for the nation back in 2009. "I think there are a number of features in the Massachusetts plan that could inform Washington on ways to improve health care for all Americans," he said. "The fact that we were able to get people insured without a government option is a model I think they can learn from." Yet, as a presidential candidate, Romney has embraced the immoderation of the Republican base and argued that "Obamacare" is a form of socialist tyranny that would somehow spell the end of America's market economy.
Dana Milbank, the Washington Post columnist, has disputed the claim that the tone of this year's presidential campaign is uglier than prior ones. "What's different this time is that the Democrats are employing the same harsh tactics that have been used against them for so long," he noted. Obama has indeed faced a host of calumnies during his presidency, from conspiracy theories that he is a covert Muslim with a fake birth certificate, to the allegation that he intends to establish a form of leftist dictatorship. Romney has notably asserted that, due to Obama, America is "only inches away from ceasing to be a free market economy." Amid myriad other declarations, let us recall Sarah Palin's canard that "Obamacare" comprised "death panels" or Newt Gingrich's claim that Obama "represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did." When the debate takes such a turn, the loser is democracy, regardless of who wins an election.
After being the target of relentless disinformation throughout his presidency, Obama should lead by example and avoid misleading claims. The Obama campaign should be able to defend the administration's health care and financial reforms based on the facts alone.