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By Mark Gabrish Conlan

October 6, 2012 (San Diego)—The first general election Presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney concluded on October 3, entering into history. It had become one of those events that seemed important because everybody — or at least all the political pundits — were saying it would be important. In an election in which the recent polls had shown Obama gaining slight but significant leads in many of the so-called “swing states,” the nine or so across the country where the balance between Democrats and Republicans is so delicate the election could go either way, the debates have been hailed as Romney’s last chance to turn things around.

Certainly Romney did his best. He came off a good deal better in the actual face-to-face confrontation than he has in what might be called the virtual debates, the newscasts in which his image and Obama’s have been intercut. Romney did better tonight than he had in the 60 Minutes special edition aired on September 23. Of course, Obama had an unfair advantage on that one: most of his 60 Minutes interview footage was shot in the Oval Office while most of Romney’s was filmed aboard a campaign plane, which provided a constant backdrop of engine noise over which Romney sometimes strained to be heard.

A lot of Republicans began this campaign season thinking the only thing they’d have to do to win the presidency this year was to nominate a candidate and have him (or her) show up. Under ordinary circumstances, the dreadfully anemic economy — 43 straight months of unemployment over 8 percent and a growth rate of under 2 percent per year — should have been enough to sink the incumbent just as it did Herbert Hoover in 1932. “All I have to do is keep talking about the economy, and I win,” Romney himself told an ABC interviewer in June. Instead, Romney has struggled to “make the sale” with the American people, so far unable to convince the 5 to 10 percent of the electorate both he and Obama think will decide the election that the economic policies he’s offering, whatever they are, would make their lives better than they are now or would be at the end of a second Obama term.

Romney should also have had the advantage that he simply looks more like a President. No, that’s not a racial comment; it’s an indication of how much American politics have come to resemble entertainment and how we’ve increasingly blurred the distinction between how we pick our reality TV contest winners and how we pick our national leaders. Even in 2008, an election that has become legendary for mobilizing vast numbers of young people and other infrequent voters to the polls, more people cast cell-phone or online votes for the winner of American Idol than voted for President of the United States. Romney looks like what the Central Casting Bureau would send to a movie set if a director called and said, “Send us a President type” — jut-jawed, strikingly handsome, grimly determined — whereas Obama as a “type” looks about as unlike the first black actor who ever played a U.S. President, James Earl Jones, as possible given that they’re both African-American males.

For all the eloquence of his prepared speeches, Obama hasn’t always impressed as an orator on the fly. Out of all the things he was before he entered politics, “law professor” best describes how he comes off in interviews or off-the-cuff remarks. He’s the smart kid in class who didn’t go out of his way to make you feel dumb but had that effect on you anyway, whereas Romney comes off with the well-practiced hail-fellow-well-met air of the successful businessman he was before he entered politics. He’s the sort of guy who would be considered cool even if he responded to your invitation to meet you at a bar for a couple of beers by saying, “No, thanks, it’s against my religion.” But Romney also comes with an oddly hectoring manner, a sense that he knows more than you do and — unlike Obama — is rude enough to tell you so to your face.

Part of that, as Nicholas Lemann suggested in his profile of Romney in the October 1 New Yorker, may have come from the way he got started in business: as a consultant for Boston Consulting Group (BCG). Companies like BCG and Bain Consulting, formed when BCG’s second-in-command, Bill Bain, left it in 1973 and took Romney with him, visited large corporations, studied them for a few months, and then told people who had been there far longer and knew much more about that particular business what they should be doing differently. A business like that requires a peculiar combination of people skills — which Romney had; Harvard Business School dean Kim Clark, a long-time friend, told Lemann that in his BCG days Romney was “very smart, but also great with senior executives … good at understanding what people’s concerns are and how they think” — and arrogance that you, a newcomer, know their business better after a few months than they do after years or even decades in it.

It’s that arrogance, I think, that has put off a lot of people who might otherwise have voted for Romney if only out of frustration and disgust with the mire the economy is in and how little Obama has been able to improve it. It’s a reaction Obama was savvy enough to tap during the debate when time after time he ragged on Romney for not being more specific about exactly what he would do differently. For his part, Romney came into the debate aware enough of how badly the “47 percent” videotape released by Mother Jones magazine had hurt him. It didn’t tell the American people anything they didn’t think they already knew about Romney, but it reinforced the image of him painted by the Obama campaign as an unfeeling plutocrat willing to denounce 47 percent of the American people as freeloaders who, because they’re receiving one sort of government assistance or another, he would never be able to convince that they “should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

So between September 17, when Mother Jones released that tape, and October 3, Romney turned his Etch-a-Sketch upside down and tried to reinvent himself as a populist. He talked about all the people he’d met on the campaign trail who told him heart-rending stories of how they’d lost their jobs and their homes in the last four years. It was Romney, not Obama, who actually uttered the word “poor” and said it was a bad thing that it now described one-sixth of the American population. Obama continued the Democrats’ decades-long strategy of describing themselves as saviors of “the middle class” and consigning to political oblivion anyone below it, as if there will always be an underclass and the sole task of government in relation to the distribution of wealth and income is to keep more “middle-class” people from falling into the economic abyss whose name we dare not speak.

It was Romney, not Obama, who denounced the Dodd-Frank securities reform bill for setting up five U.S. mega-banks as “too big to fail” and allowing hundreds of small banks to die. It was Romney, not Obama, who denounced the $716 billion cutback in Medicare used to fund the Affordable Care Act — whose pejorative name “Obamacare,” coined by Republican propagandists, has become so ubiquitous even Obama embraced it in the October 3 debate. And it was Romney who pointed out the inconvenient truth that the bland defense of the cut offered by Obama and other Democrats — that it merely cut payments to “providers and hospitals,” not patients — was deceptive because it ignores the fact that when you cut the money you pay doctors and hospitals to treat Medicare patients, many of them will respond by deciding they can no longer afford Medicare patients. I did home care for a disabled man on Social Security and Medicare for nearly 30 years, and I lived with him through various cuts in his care, many of them initiated by Democratic officeholders cutting back Medicare payments to bring down the overall cost of the program.

Of course, Obama had some obvious comebacks to Romney’s arguments — and he didn’t use all of them. He didn’t say, for example, that the $716 billion Medicare cut was originally a Republican idea — it was in one of the alternative budgets prepared by Romney’s running mate, Congressmember Paul Ryan, as a way of paying for more tax cuts for the rich. But he did say the Affordable Care Act was based on the bill Romney himself got through the Massachusetts legislature — and Romney’s response, that it was O.K. for a state to make those changes but not for the federal government to mandate them, and it was O.K. for a bipartisan coalition to come up with such a bill but not O.K. for the Democrats to push it through without a Republican vote, was incredibly lame. Still, Obama missed the obvious comeback to that: unlike their Republican counterparts in Congress in 2009, the Democrats in the Massachusetts legislature hadn’t come in on day one of Romney’s reign and said, “Our objective is to make him a one-term Governor.”

Overall, the October 3 debate was a weird spectacle. Out of all the Presidential debates I’ve seen — and I’ve watched them all since 1976 — I can’t think of any offhand where the candidates were ruder to the moderator, Jim Lehrer of PBS, than Obama and Romney were this time. They continually interrupted him and ignored his attempts to limit their remarks to the agreed-upon two-minute maximum. At times Obama and Romney reminded me of two caged tigers, putting out waves of energy in a confined space and showing an ill-concealed urge to break free of the constraints of the format and really pounce on each other. I watched the debate on C-SPAN, which showed a lot of split-screen images of both candidates simultaneously, and the body language of each while the other was speaking said volumes. Though neither candidate showed the fatal impatience with the other Al Gore exhibited in 2000 — Gore’s facial expressions and body language towards George W. Bush betrayed his thought, “I’ve got to appear on stage with this moron before I can get to be President,” and helped ensure he wouldn’t be — there was still a stark contrast between Obama’s almost unearthly calm, with just a weird pursing of the lips as Romney fired his zingers, and Romney’s agitated glaring and staring as Obama spoke.

The whole structure of American politics these days — particularly the heavy dependence of both major parties on contributions from wealthy individuals and corporations — tends to minimize the distinctions between candidates and ideologies. Nonetheless, some real differences came through in the debate. Obama denounced the $4 billion a year in federal tax breaks for oil companies. Romney fired back that that was a drop in the bucket compared to the $90 billion going to renewable energy, and though on two different occasions he said, “I like green energy as much as the next guy,” he seemed — like a lot of other Republicans — to be hinting that the whole alternative-energy sector is a useless scam aimed at bilking the government out of money that could otherwise be used to hire teachers.

Nowhere was the difference between the candidates more apparent than in the closing statements — particularly Romney’s — in which he flat-out said that the private sector is always more efficient than government. Earlier Obama had pointed out that the administrative overhead of Medicare is 2 percent versus much higher rates in the private insurance industry. He didn’t say how much higher, but a 2005 report by the California Medical Association, available online through a link from www.masscare.org, notes that the combined overhead and profit of Aetna of California is 20 percent, of Blue Cross 20.1 percent and Blue Shield 18.4 percent. The Affordable Care Act, which Romney wants to “repeal and replace” (though as usual he’s maddeningly unspecific as to what he wants to replace it with), seeks to limit insurers’ overhead and profit to 15 percent.

Like most 21st century Republicans, Romney presented privatization and “managed competition” between government programs and private companies as a virtual panacea. In the real world, the only ways private companies that take over the work of government departments can charge less and still make profits is by reducing the pay of their workers or reducing the quality of their services — and they usually do both, as residents of Atlanta discovered when a private company took over their city’s water supply and their tap water frequently turned brown.

The Republican Party has become so hostile not only to government but to the very idea that people are responsible for each other, and government has a legitimate role to play in ensuring that everybody gets a fair chance and a hand-up when they need it, that despite Romney’s occasional disclaimers that he still believes in a social safety net, the choice in 2012 is clear: one party still proclaims that there is such a thing as society and we are all in this together, while the other insists ever more stridently that we’re all out here on our own.

The opinions in this column reflect the views of its author and do not necessarily reflect the views  of East County Magazine.

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