The over 70 million viewers who tuned in last Wednesday to watch the Presidential debate could not have anticipated that they would see such a lackluster performance from the President. Al Gore suggested it could have been the altitude in Denver. David Axelrod, the President's chief strategist, offered the excuse that the President wanted to avoid a "shouting match." Well, the President certainly may have kept his dignity intact, but the lack of fire in his belly and his slow-on-the-uptake responses allowed Romney to pummel him with a string of un-checked lies and attacks on his proposals and accomplishments.
Romney hammered away at purported Obama failures in healthcare, the deficit, taxes, jobs, the economy and energy. While Romney was ready to get down in the mud and brawl, Obama's will to fight seemed to be M.I.A. Also, his odd opening remark wishing his "sweetie," Michelle, a happy 20th anniversary was inappropriate, and, as one strategist suggested, may have thrown him off his game right from the start. The next day on the campaign trail, the President laughed while telling a crowd that a different Romney showed up for the debate, while neglecting to also note that a different Obama had also showed up.
The debate lasted a painful 90 minutes, with Jim Lehrer of PBS acting as moderator, but at times losing control of both debaters, as they regularly exceeded the time constraints for their rebuttals. Romney played it exactly right for the evening, displaying a less-radical side and appearing to be the more compassionate candidate, playing down his business credentials - or "rap sheet," as it were - and instead rattling off the names and stories of a string of people he has met along the campaign trail whose heart-wrenching economic struggles were apparently all caused by the President. The GOP's man of wax actually appeared humanoid, while leveling one false accusation after another at the President.
Where was the '08 Obama, proudly talking about his accomplishments despite a hostile Tea Party-controlled House and a Senate with a slim Dem majority? Where was his mention of the Super PAC's and the corrupt special interest money flooding into campaigns? He should have bit the bullet and said if re-elected, he would work to pass an amendment overturning the Citizens United decision and push for public finding of campaigns, returning our democracy to the American people. If you are disgusted with the partisan majority on the Supreme Court now, imagine the future choices Romney might make. One shudders to think. It's almost certain a few new justices will be chosen during the next administration, and any pick by a President Romney would only serve to solidify the Court's partisan conservative majority and open the door for legitimizing an extreme right wing agenda that will undo everything America achieved in the last century.
Also amazing to one and all is that the President didn't mention Romney's infamous "47%" comments and his equally ugly assertion that he doesn't "...worry about those people." Those comments had Romney and his campaign spinning in a free fall and clearly on the skids, yet they were just another missed opportunity for Obama to clearly define Romney as the lackey of the 1% that he is.
Meanwhile, Romney kept the exaggerations and outright lies flying, with one of his many attacks aimed at a $716 billion "cut" to Medicare. Here, again, was a major fabrication to which the President had the perfect rebuttal. Cuts would not come from reducing Medicare services. Costs would be reduced by cutting payments to the insurance industry for Medicare Advantage plans, which offer a few more services than plans provided by traditional Medicare. The savings would also come from streamlining Medicare, cutting waste and fraud, and from continuing to close the so-called "donut hole" on prescription drugs, which is saving seniors and average of $629 this year on discounted prescription drugs.
All of these savings will actually extend the life of Medicare by eight years - which the President did briefly mention during the debate - instead of decimating it with vouchers and a raise in the eligibility age, as Paul Ryan would like to see. Of course, going to Improved and Expanded Medicare For All (or "single payer") would cut $400 billion per year from our hefty health care bill, which neither candidate seemed interested in discussing. Until recently, 30% of every healthcare dollar had gone to fattening the coffers of the health insurance industry, and not to actual healthcare, but the President's Affordable Care Act whittled that number down somewhat, as insurers must now spend 80% of every dollar on actual healthcare.
Now, a few corporations are beginning to pull away from delivering healthcare benefits to employees and are instead offering workers a lump sum to purchase healthcare in the marketplace, with the bulk of the cost picked up by the employee. We will see more of this trend growing as healthcare costs continue to rise with no relief in sight. Corporations should become advocates for single payer, as it would serve them well. Of course, for single payer to even have a chance, Obama - if he is re-elected - would have to move away from his free-market thinking in healthcare and a different kind of Congress would have to be in place. Only then coule we hope to see that national, universal healthcare system that we so desperately need put in place. Many of the good reforms in the ACA could be incorporated into the single payer bill that currently exists, H.R.676 sponsored by Rep. John Conyers.
Indeed, the President needed to say much more on this topic, but, again, failed to defend himself or his achievements. And let us not fail to mention that this $716 billion cut to Medicare has magically appeared only recently, since in June 2011, Michele Bachmann and Romney both referred to a cut of $500 billion in one of their debates. Here, again, Romney presented himself as the "savior" of Medicare, while not coming clean on those vouchers that would eventually privatize Medicare. Romney also failed to mention that as soon he took office, he would work to end the ACA, with the goal of turning healthcare delivery over to the states, and with many states under GOP control we know what that would mean.
Romney did, however, finally take ownership of "Romneycare" in Massachusetts during the debate. He delivered a bare-bones plan to his state as Governor, along with those penalties for not purchasing healthcare that he rails against today. Of course, he neglected to mention that he did not raise taxes only because the Federal government funded half of his reforms. His plan, based on the work of the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation ultimately became the national template for the ACA.
So where does the President go from here as he prepares for the next two debates? This experience had to be a wakeup call. On October 16th at Hofstra University in New York, he must pull out all the stops and use his considerable smarts and talents to lay out his vision for the country and how he will achieve the many lofty goals he set in 2008 that remain unmet. Enlist the American people to partner with you, Mr. President, and tell them how they can be a powerful force in taking back our democracy and delivering with you an agenda that will include a massive rebuilding of our crumbling infrastructure with a WPA-style program that generates millions of jobs.
Say it regardless of who may be in the Congress in 2013. You have got to tell the country what your vision is for our shared future, instead of defensively reacting - or not reacting - to Romney's barbs. We need to know where we are going and what our future will be like - or even if there is a future? Present yourself as the leader of the People, and create a clear contrast between yourself and Romney/Ryan and the mega-rich donors - who will surely expect payback after the election - and Super PAC's backing them.
Declare your allegiance to the People and your country, and make it clear that if re-elected you will press for an amendment striking down Citizens United and moving to public funding of campaigns. This should be your message and promise to the American people. Be bold Mr. President and the People will support you. That, after all, is the only way any kind of agenda you propose can be fulfilled. The money must be removed from our politics, Mr. President. Make the case and show the stark contrast between your vision and the vision of the extreme right wing that has taken over the GOP.
An additional bizarre moment at the debate occurred when Romney took a shot at Big Bird, that beloved national treasure and icon of all children for decades. Romney leaned over from the podium and looked Jim Lehrer right in the eye and said there would be no borrowing from China to subsidize PBS, although Romney liked Jim and loved Big Bird. So now we have Romney not only taking on the middle class, but also young children who learn about values like sharing, friendship, communication and so much more from PBS shows like Sesame Street. Romney would just as soon see all of that shut down, eliminating the only place outside corporate-owned TV that provides programs of high quality in science, history, politics, religion, finance, music, drama and all of the arts. And what would we do without Bill Moyers and his unique voice that exposes so many of the evils in our politics? Maybe that is the real Romney goal. To deprive the public of an education and enrichment on so many levels would be a crime.
The silliness here is that the PBS budget is only $475 million, of which only 15% comes from the Federal government. Yet even that small amount would impact a program like Sesame Street and all children would suffer the loss. Since it is now the young who are under attack by the Republicans, perhaps an Occupy movement of children and their parents is called for, rallying to increase federal funding of PBS. Let the politicians take on the kids and their parents across America - and suffer the consequences.
- with Jonathan Stone