Dawidziak: In debates, more power to 'referee' Jim Lehrer
Michael DawidziakMichael Dawidziak
Michael Dawidziak writes an opinion page column for Newsday. He
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The presidential race is about two very different visions for America. In the lead-up to tonight's first debate between President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney, that's been a line we've heard continually. Undoubtedly, we'll hear it again tonight.
If only it were true.
Nationally, the two major parties make a great show of heated debate on the issues that divide them and that they have in turn used to divide the country. Unfortunately, the rhetoric that generates the most heat in the media is centered on social issues and class warfare arguments. Being a crusading social warrior is a surefire way to get face time on Fox News or MSNBC.
But the polling clearly shows that such hot-button issues are not what the vast majority of voters cares about in this election. Granted, these issues can be used very effectively to drive out a party's base, such as evangelicals or social liberals, but this year it's all about the economy.
And once you get past the passion-driven topics and get down to those significant economic questions, most Republicans and Democrats often agree. Look at most major fiscal government initiatives over the past 30 years, and they almost always have bipartisan support.
The savings and loan bailout of 1989 cost the taxpayers $124 billion. The 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act removed investment safeguard regulations enacted during the Great Depression and many believe directly helped cause the current financial crisis. The North American Free Trade Agreement is blamed for a loss of American jobs, particularly in the manufacturing sector. All of these -- and, of course, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, and the Wall Street and auto industry bailouts -- passed with the backing of both Democrats and Republicans.
Also, military spending -- a beltway sacred cow -- has crossed over to both sides of the aisle. When it comes to spending big money, the parties can cooperate after all.
It's not hard to understand why fewer people vote every year. When questioned in polls, citizens often say they feel their votes don't make a difference. Every election year it seems the candidates pick out issues on which they can safely disagree. This year it's the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the "tax the rich" debate. But for all the attention Obamacare is getting, the polling shows that health care is not a deciding issue with most voters.
And the "tax the rich" argument? Again, it's one of those ideological disputes that in reality is almost meaningless. The billions it could generate is minuscule compared with the trillions that government spending will increase.
So tonight, the undecided voters will be looking for a difference -- and for why their votes could make a difference. The pressure is far greater on Romney to draw these distinctions. As we get later in the game and he continues to trail in most polls, he must convince the voters why changing leaders will matter. With the lead, Obama can afford to sit on the puck and let the game clock run out.
Tonight's debate on domestic issues ought to focus on the economy, which should be Romney's strong suit. Those voters still up for grabs will be looking for substance and not mere rhetoric. Good luck to them in getting it. So far, both candidates have avoided giving specific details. As he tries to force detailed solutions from them, tonight could be more moderator Jim Lehrer vs. the candidates than Obama vs. Romney.
I'll be rooting for Lehrer.
Michael Dawidziak is a political consultant and pollster.