Romney

I love rigorous toe-to-toe debates, but I hate what I have seen from our presidential candidates in their recent performances. Debates are supposed to force a detailed and focused interrogation of issues, but the past two encounters have only encouraged attacks and personal viciousness accompanied by saccharine smiles. Debates are designed to show candidates’ clarity on positions and contrast their styles. The past two debates have included so many slippery shifts in position that it is less clear today what the candidates believe than it was before the debates. Most of all, debates are intended to showcase leadership demeanor and command capabilities. Tuesday’s “town hall” brawl undermined any opportunity to assess these qualities. The two candidates spent their time interrupting one another, arguing with the moderator and flaunting their postures as aggressive warriors. At moments, it looked like they were keen to clobber one another. These displays of belligerence are harmful on the high school playground, and they are deadly in the White House. Shame on President Obama and Gov. Romney. They are much better than what they have become in this campaign.

I am not nostalgic for the mythical time of “clean” and “substantive” politics in America. I know very well that such a moment never occurred. Despite their powdered wigs and dignified public demeanor, even our nation’s founders engaged in vicious attacks against opponents. Two of the greatest early American politicians, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, literally came to blows, with Hamilton dying from a bullet fired by Burr’s dueling gun. American politics have always involved brawling. Negative advertising is only a modern form of the traditional campaign.

What is new, however, is the use of information overload to obscure positions. Both President Obama and Gov. Romney are throwing more “facts” at listeners than ever before, but they are refusing to offer coherently argued positions. They each claim to support lower taxes, increased government revenue, lower deficits and more spending. They each pledge to assert more American strength abroad while bringing the troops home. Most confusingly, President Obama and Gov. Romney agree that job creation is a priority, while they simultaneously oppose jobs plans or even targeted investments in job creation and training at home. Watching them throw around the data from all directions, one gets more information but less clarity about how purpose and policy will fit together. It is like listening to kids argue about who started a fight. As they debate the facts, it becomes easier to continue the fight than create a useful path forward.

We need debates in our campaigns, but not these debates. The problem is more than format. It is about what we as citizens have come to expect in an age of talk radio and blogs in which those who shout loudest and longest, not those who make the most persuasive arguments, are rewarded with fame and money. We are a public culture of argument without real debate, and that needs to change if we ever want a true marketplace of ideas. At present, we have an overload of facts and positions without the interrogation and testing necessary for finding the truth.

So here is what I propose: Let’s scrap the open “foreign policy” brawl that is planned for the next debate. Instead, the public should demand that the two candidates sit down together at a table (please no more shoulder-to-shoulder jousting!) with an agreed focus on one discrete topic — for example, tax policy or job creation or the Iranian nuclear project. A real debate would require each candidate to explain what he will do in the next four years to address that specific challenge. After that, each candidate should be allowed to cross-examine the other with short questions, not statements.

Under this scheme, President Obama can describe the budget he hopes to pass. Gov. Romney can then ask for details regarding deficits and pork in Obama’s proposed budget. Gov. Romney can outline his own proposed budget, and then President Obama can question him about income inequality and cuts to essential services under his plan. This is the form of dignified interrogation that works in corporate boardrooms, in academic seminars and in policymaking bodies like the National Security Council. It is also how generals assess competing war plans. Why should we expect less of our presidential candidates?

Proposing a detailed plan and defending it against substantive questions about its content and consequences is the most effective test of leadership. That is also what presidential debates should be about. We have had enlightening debates of this kind in the past with diverse candidates, including George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot in 1996, as well as Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in 1980. The time has come for a return to policy focus without flamboyant personal attacks. The future of the United States will not be determined by who is best at tearing down his opponent. The progress of our society will hinge on implementing policies that prove, under scrutiny, most helpful to the public.

Dr. Jeremi Suri is a professor in the UT Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. This essay originally appeared on his blog on Global Brief, an international affairs magazine.  

Vice President Joe Biden speaks in Exeter, N.H. earlier this month.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

NEW YORK — Vice President Joe Biden delivered a harsh attack Thursday on Mitt Romney’s foreign policy views, arguing that the presumptive Republican presidential nominee is rooted in a Cold War mentality and is uninformed about the current challenges facing the U.S. abroad.

In a campaign speech delivered at New York University Law School, Biden laid out a robust defense of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy record while eviscerating Romney for lacking vision and for “distorting” Obama’s record in a way that has been counterproductive to U.S. interests.

“If you’re looking for a bumper sticker to sum up how President Obama has handled what we inherited, it’s pretty simple: Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive,” Biden said, saying Obama’s decisions on both foreign and domestic policy had made the U.S. safer.

Biden cast the former Massachusetts governor as an inexperienced foreign policy thinker who would delegate decisions to staff and advisers. He also hit Romney on his reputation for flip-flopping on issues.

“We know when the governor does venture a position it’s a safe bet that he previously took or will take an exactly opposite position,” Biden said, noting that Romney had originally supported setting a time frame for pulling U.S. troops from Afghanistan only to later criticize Obama’s plan to do so by the end of 2014.

Biden repeatedly used Romney’s own words against him, such as when Romney downplayed the significance of capturing Osama bin Laden during Romney’s 2008 presidential bid and, more recently, when Romney said Russia was the United States’ gravest geopolitical foe.

“As my brother would say, ‘Go figure,’” Biden said to laughs.

In response, Romney adviser John Lehman accused the president of a “gross abdication of leadership” that could have practical and political consequences.

“Why is the United States under Obama abdicating its leadership for keeping stability in the world?” asked Lehman, Navy secretary in the Reagan administration, during a conference call Romney’s campaign arranged with reporters before Biden spoke. “This is a serious crisis and perhaps could be the central issue in the campaign.”

Lehman continued: “The Obama administration in a very studied and intentional way is withdrawing from leading the free world and maintaining stability around the world — what Obama calls leading from behind. But the reality is it’s opening up huge new vulnerabilities.”

Obama has not described his foreign policy as “leading from behind.” Republicans used the phrase to chastise Obama for his handling of last year’s uprising in Libya.

Biden recited Obama’s foreign policy achievements, noting that he ordered the attack that killed bin Laden and fulfilled a campaign promise to end the Iraq war. Biden said Obama repaired alliances with other nations, particularly with geopolitical partners in Europe and Asia.

He also pushed back particularly hard on Romney’s attacks on the Obama administration’s handling of Iran and Israel, two areas where Republicans have been sharply critical of the president.

On Iran, Biden said Romney’s call for crippling sanctions and a U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon simply mirrored Obama’s approach.

“The only step we could take that we aren’t already taking is to launch a war against Iran. If that’s what Gov. Romney means by a ‘very different policy,’ he should tell the American people,” Biden said.
On Israel, Biden said Obama has stood firm in support of the Jewish state — often alone and facing criticism from other allies. He noted that Romney had accused Obama of “throwing Israel under the bus.”

“The governor is falling back on one of his party’s favorite tricks of late — distort and mischaracterize your opponent’s position. Keep repeating the distortions and mischaracterizations over and over again,” Biden said.

Biden said Obama had adhered to President Teddy Roosevelt’s admonition that, on foreign policy, a president should speak softly and carry a big stick.

“I promise you, the president has a big stick,” Biden said.

President Barack Obama shakes hands after speaking at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Tuesday.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — President Barack Obama went after the college vote Tuesday, pitching cheaper student loans as he courted the one age group where he has a decided advantage over Republican rival Mitt Romney. The twist? Romney, too, has endorsed the idea, though it’s unclear whether deficit-leery Republicans in Congress will go along.

In the race for the White House, both the Obama and Romney campaigns see huge opportunities to court younger voters. This week, their efforts are focused on the millions of students — and their parents — who are grappling with college costs at a time when such debt has grown so staggering it exceeds the totals for credit cards or auto loans.

Trying to make it personal, Obama told students at the University of North Carolina that he and first lady Michelle Obama had “been in your shoes” and didn’t pay off their student loans until eight years ago.

“I didn’t just read about this. I didn’t just get some talking points about this. I didn’t just get a policy briefing on this,” Obama said. “We didn’t come from wealthy families. When we graduated from college and law school, we had a mountain of debt. When we married, we got poor together.”

Obama’s emphasis on his personal experience set up a contrast with Romney, whose father was a wealthy auto executive. It’s a point the president is sure to return to during this summer’s campaigning.

Though both Obama and Romney have expressed support for freezing the current interest rates on the loans for poorer and middle-class students, lawmakers are still exploring ways to pay for the plan. The timing is important because the rate will double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent on July 1 without intervention by Congress, an expiration date chosen in 2007 when a Democratic Congress voted to chop the rate in half.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York has estimated about 15 percent of Americans, or 37 million people, have outstanding student loan debt. The bank puts the total at $870 billion, though other estimates have reached $1 trillion. About two-thirds of student loan debt is held by people under 30.

The loan rate freeze Obama and Romney are championing amounts to a one-year, election-year fix at a cost of roughly $6 billion. Congress seems headed that way. Members of both parties are assessing ways to cover the costs and then gain the votes in the House and Senate. Both parties have a political incentive to keep the rates as they are.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday, “I don’t think anybody believes this interest rate ought to be allowed to rise.” He added, “The question is how do you pay for it, how long do you do the extension.”

One Democratic idea: Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, who chairs the Education Committee, said the money would come from closing a loophole that lets owners of privately owned companies called S corporations avoid paying the Social Security and Medicare payroll tax on part of their earnings.

Romney said this week that he agrees the loan rates shouldn’t be raised, coupling that stance with criticism of Obama’s economic leadership.

“Given the bleak job prospects that young Americans coming out of college face today, I encourage Congress to temporarily extend the low rate,” Romney said in a statement.

Obama spokesman Jay Carney said it was “ironic” that a Republican could both back the interest rate freeze and support a budget proposal from Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that the White House says would keep the rate at 6.8 percent.

Romney has said he is “very supportive” of the Ryan budget.

At the same time, some conservative activists have denounced Romney’s decision to match Obama’s position on student loan rates.

“Mitt Romney is going to sell out conservatives in his party” to improve his chances in the November election, Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote in a blog carried by sites including Free Republic.

By taking on student debt, Obama spoke to middle-class America and also targeted a growing economic burden that could hamper the national recovery.

While leaning on Republicans in Congress to act, he also sought to energize the young people essential to his campaign — those who voted for him last time and the many more who have turned voting age since then. Obama urged students to go to social media sites like Twitter to pressure their lawmakers to prevent the interest rates on the loans “from shooting up and shaking you down.”

The blurring between Obama’s official and campaign events emerged here in Tar Heel country, with Obama encouraging students to give him an “Amen” at times (they did) and the crowd also giving him an unsolicited chant of “Four more years!” On a blue-sky, breezy day, Obama soaked in the youth vibe on campus, where he also appeared in a taping of “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.”

With Romney seemingly assured of sweeping the five Republican presidential primaries being held Tuesday, the former Massachusetts governor planned a focus on the general election with a speech in New Hampshire titled “A Better America Begins Tonight.”

Ahead of the speech, Romney supporters said Obama’s policies had hurt younger voters and questioned whether the president could garner the same amount of support as in 2008.

“Young people are sitting here three and a half years later and they’re not better off,” said Alex Schriver, chairman of the College Republican National Committee.

The president was also speaking Tuesday at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and then at the University of Iowa on Wednesday. All three schools are in states that Obama carried in 2008, and all three states are considered among the several that could swing to Obama or Romney and help decide a close 2012 election.

Obama carried voters between the ages of 18-29 by a margin of about 2-to-1 in 2008, but many recent college graduates have had difficulty finding jobs. That raises concerns for the president about whether they will vote and volunteer for him in such large numbers again.

Without mentioning her by name, Obama cited North Carolina Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx, quoting her from a recent radio interview with G. Gordon Liddy in which she said, “I have very little tolerance for people who tell me that they graduate with $200,000 of debt.”

Obama said allowing the interest rates to double this summer would hurt more than 7 million students, costing the average student $1,000 and amounting to a “tax hike” for those students and their families.

“Anybody here can afford to pay an extra thousand dollars right now?” Obama asked to jeers from the crowd. “I don’t think so.”

Printed on Wednesday, April 25, 2012 as: Obama, Romney compete to ease student loans