Where's the Policy?

Like so many people—most, I would argue—I don’t so much listen to the presidential debates as watch them. As the words drone on in the background, I watch how they stand, where they look, what they emphasize. You’ve already read Bob Moser’s and Robert Kuttner’s detailed critiques of the President’s debate performance, and you don’t need my echo. But what I saw last night—whether accurately or not—was this: An exhausted President Obama isn’t completely sure he still wants the job.

I’m not saying that is true; I am saying that that’s how he looked. Sure, he might have been preoccupied with the fact that, yesterday, Turkey made a preliminary foray into war with Syria—the man does have a demanding day job—but my fellow spectators on Twitter were crazed as Obama failed to make the case for his continued presidency. Someone tweeted, “Does Canada make you self-deport? Asking for a friend.” Others urged Team Obama to send Bill Clinton in as his designated hitter for the next two debates, instead of just name-checking him. (Weirdly, Clinton has become the new Reagan, stand-in for our imagined ideal past.) Chris Matthews’ reaction may have been, characteristically, over the top—someone watching MSNBC tweeted that perhaps he and the more quietly despairing Ed Schultz shouldn’t be allowed to go home alone—but Romney did indeed look like the man who wanted the job. Thank God for the Prospect's Jamelle Bouie, who repeatedly talked everyone off the ledge, reminding us again and again that debates do not change the race. And thank God for the fact that the entire thing was so painfully insider and wonky—from Jim Lehrer’s face to the fact that questions and answers included unexplained references to things the ordinary viewer won’t be familiar with, like “Simpson-Bowles” and “Dodd-Frank”—that most people probably tuned out. My wife was fed up with it in two minutes, and went off to the bedroom where she could, instead, watch her beloved Red Sox get pummeled by the Team That Must Not Be Named in the final game of their miserable season.

But here’s my gripe: How was it possible to hold a major “domestic policy” debate—and never once bump into a single social issue? I know Jim Lehrer got completely steamrolled, losing control of the debate early on. (Someone needs to revoke his moderator license: never again, please!) But the direction of his questions—jobs, taxes, social security, health care, the stimulus, the deficit—was just as insider as the lingo. He only popped the "Big Men" questions, the ones officially approved for Serious Discussion. What happened to, say, equal pay, the legality of contraception, immigration, the Defense of Marriage Act, or climate change? Nor did President Obama, doing his best sleep-talking imitation, manage to mention any those issues, even when they were relevant. He could have, oh, noted that Obamacare makes it illegal for insurance companies to treat being female as a preexisting condition (i.e., making women of child-bearing age pay more in their health insurance premiums). Or that his administration believes it’s unfair that same-sex couples pay taxes on our health insurance because the federal government is pretending we’re not married. Or that a fossil-fuel-only energy policy meant that American farmers were this year devastated by a climate change-induced drought.

I was at the Warren/Brown debate in Lowell this Monday night, held, appropriately enough, at a hockey arena (electoral politics = blood sport). While David Gregory was an utterly obnoxious moderator who over-dominated the discussion and let Brown seize control and mansplain all over Warren, he did manage to ask questions about, say, the Supreme Court—a domestic policy issue if there ever was one.

Yes, we have a few more debates to go, and surely someone (please) will find a way to talk about our messy human lives in ways that sound human. Candy Crowley, we are counting on you.

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