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What Obama And Romney Left Out In First Debate


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary. Mitt Romney proved he could go head-to-head with President Obama in the first of three presidential debates last night in Denver. Romney's strong performance gave Republicans renewed hope for his chance at the White House.

The debate, designated as a discussion of domestic policies, covered a lot of ground on the economy and health care while largely leaving out topics like immigration, women's and social issues and national security. So what didn't you hear in last night's debate that you wanted to hear? Our number, 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving was up late covering the debate and the reaction afterwards and he joins us here in Studio 3A. Good to have you back, Ron. I hope you got some sleep last night. Did you?

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Yes I did. Good to see you, Lynn.

NEARY: Of course we know what the candidates talked about, very heavy on the economy, a lot of health care, a lot of detailed discussion of policy. But what didn't they discuss?

ELVING: Interestingly, the White House apparently agreed to an agenda for this domestic policy debate that was three units out of six, 50 percent about the economy, all right that's the number one issue, everyone understands, part health care and then essentially governing and trying to get something done in Washington.

If you throw in maybe the debt and the deficit, that was the agenda list, and really none of those is an advantageous topic for the president. They did not insist on talking about immigration, where the president does have an advantage, especially with Hispanic voters. They didn't want to talk about anything having to do particularly with women's health care or any of the issues surrounding that.

There was no talk of gay marriage, which has actually become something of a positive for many Democrats, at least in some states, whereas eight years ago it was considered a killer issue, and the Republicans were pushing it very hard. Never came up last night. And abortion, which back over the years, all the way back to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, has been a mainstay of political debate particularly and even at the presidential level, and that never came up last night, not even a passing reference to the right to choose or the right to life or anything of that nature.

So in all of those respects, this debate stands out quite distinctly from the list of agenda items that we would have seen at any time over the last 30 years or so.

NEARY: Yeah, so we can expect to hear some of those issues come up in the future debates, or...

ELVING: Yes, I expect that the town hall debate, which is coming up on October 16, that event is going to be driven more by the concerns of the people in the audience, as opposed to, if you will, the heavy policy wonk-a-thon that we saw last night with all those numbers and all those policy references, and tossed-off references to Simpson-Bowles and to Dodd-Frank and to a number of other legislative proposals that most people don't really have nicknames for, if they think about them at all.

So I guess we'll hear more what the people are interested in when we get to the town hall, and then the final debate on the 22nd is about foreign policy.

NEARY: All right, let's go to our audience and see what our callers have to say, Elizabeth(ph) calling from Hayward, Wisconsin. Hi, Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH: Hi, thank you for having me. Actually, among all those things that you - your guest says were missing from last night's conversation, what I find missing from that conversation is that no one has called Governor Romney out on the incredible number of lies he told.

It may have looked like a good performance, but a performance is what it was. I found a number of outright lies in that.

NEARY: Well, let's ask Ron Elving, our expert here in the studio. Thanks so much for your call. Let's talk about checking some of the facts, Ron.

ELVING: The politics, fact-checkers if you will, Politifact, you know, factcheck.com and a number of the other places that people go to check the actuality of some of the statements that politicians make, were pretty tough on Mitt Romney this morning and I think will continue to be. I expect this is an area where the Democrats will try to tear down Mitt Romney performance, which has been so widely praised today, largely on style and largely on impression without necessarily taking apart all the things that were said.

In fact I believe if you look at strictly the transcript of the debate and just look at the words that were said without the hesitations and the haltingness of the president's presentation, you would get a quite different impression and that if you laid all these arguments out and analyzed them carefully word-by-word, you would get quite a different impression.

But in those 90 minutes, in the moment, what people saw on television, what people's impression likely was, was a highly confident business executive full of confidence and putting forth his point of view and his view of the world and a rather hesitant government professor who was sort of trying with caution to choose just the right word.

NEARY: Well, is President Obama just not a particularly good debater?

ELVING: This is a tough sell. If you say to somebody, you know, the president wasn't very articulate, they kind of look quizzical at you because the man is reputed to be the greatest orator of his time, and when he does a press conference in the White House, he often seems rather magisterial. He is so much in control. He seems like a law professor taking questions from his students. Of course the reporters do not appreciate that particular analogy, but the president usually looks pretty good in a talking situation. This is one of the things that he's best known for. But if you go back to the debates that he had against Hillary Clinton in 2008 and against the full field of Democratic candidates in 2007, he's not particularly outstanding.

He does hesitate like this. He does halt like this. And there are times when he has done that in public, under certain circumstances: if he's distracted; if he's thinking about something else; if he's tired. One would have expected, though, that in an instance like this, a critical moment in a presidential campaign, he's only got one re-election campaign, and at the moment when if you look at it from the other side he might have put Mitt Romney away, he's got a little bit of a lead, most people think he's supposed to win this election or at least they did before yesterday, and had he been able to really parry all of those thrusts that were coming at him from Governor Romney, he might very well have begun to sprout the obituaries for Mitt Romney's campaign, if he had had a strong performance.

And it almost seemed as though they didn't feel as though they needed to prepare or get him particularly focused on it, that they could just sort of brush Mitt Romney aside...

NEARY: And of course Romney has spent weeks preparing for this, nonstop.

ELVING: And it showed, it showed.

NEARY: We are talking with Ron Elving, NPR's senior Washington editor. We are talking with him about last night's debate and asking you, especially, to tell us what you didn't hear that you had hoped you would hear in the debate. We're going to take a call now from Letitia(ph) from Tampa, Florida. Hi, Letitia.

LETITIA: Hi, thanks for having me on the show.

NEARY: Oh you're welcome, go right ahead.

LETITIA: My concern is - was that he did not address immigration, which is - as an immigrant myself, this is the second time I'm going to have the opportunity to vote. The first time, I didn't get to because I just didn't know where to start. So at this point, I'm still not decided, and I thought by watching them last night I could figure out, you know, which route I would take.

Unfortunately, I found Mitt Romney to have just a lot of talk going on. He'll be talking, but there's no substance. At the same time, I didn't get anything from the president, as well. So to me it's - there was a lot of talk, but they didn't talk about anything but money, and...

NEARY: Did you find it - I'm curious, did you find it confusing at all? Did you understand some of that?

LETITIA: Well, I didn't even understand the lingo. To me it just sounded like mumbo-jumbo. I don't understand the numbers. I don't understand the policies. And I really have been trying to do my homework, but it's like they're battling against each other, and nobody gets informed in the process. And there are no facts. So, you know, I'm...

NEARY: Yeah, or maybe there's too many facts. I don't know. Maybe that's the problem. Letitia, I'm going to ask Ron Elving to respond to your concerns because I think you've raised a couple of very good and interesting points. Thank you very much for your call. Ron?

ELVING: Over the last 10 years, it's hard to imagine an issue that's been more important to domestic policy than immigration. And yet it was nowhere in this debate. It was all over the Republican primary debates, as each of the candidates seemed to be, at times, outdoing each other in talking about their resistance to illegal immigration. And at one time, Mitt Romney said that he thought that a lot of the 12, 13 million or however many people are in the country without documents, what they should do is maybe a lot of them should self-deport. That was quite a stunning moment in one of the Republican primaries.

So he was on the side in the primaries of getting tough on illegal immigration and building that wall and so forth and really was not particularly interested in supporting the aspirations, say, for example, of what are we calling them now, the DREAMers, or the DREAM kids, people who were born in this country, brought here by their parents and very, very young - excuse me - not born here but brought here when they were very young by their parents who were undocumented and who have no status.

Some of them have gone to high school. Some of them are going to college. Some of them have gone into the military. And can they find a way if not to citizenship at least to legal status? That particular issue, that's one the president has stepped out on and said we're not going to deport these people. And Mitt Romney's been back and forth about it.

He told the Denver Post the other day that he didn't want to deport them or at least he didn't want to really go after them and arrest them. But on the other hand, we couldn't really give them legal status, either. So this is a hot topic. And it's terribly important in many parts of the country. And it's certainly important to people whose lives are directly affected, and it didn't get into the debate because neither man thought that it was politically advantageous to him to bring it up, I have to assume.

NEARY: Yeah. And what about the other point Letitia made which is she said she's really trying to grasp some of these conversations going on around the budget, around the deficit, around government and the role of government and not really getting it?

ELVING: Yeah. Here are a couple of guys who both went to Harvard Law School and were not going to be seen as the less well-informed, less sophisticated debater on the subject of, say, the debt or the deficit or the content of some of the banking regulation and so on. They're both great students of policy. They have been great students as governor and president. They have been very serious about their involvement in policy. They know a lot of this stuff. They don't see themselves at 30,000 feet. They don't see themselves as chairman of the board. They really do get involved.

And once the debate was engaged on those terms, they couldn't stop. You could imagine perhaps the president stepping back and saying but was does this really mean to you, but he never really managed to do that. He kept getting caught up in this struggle. And as far as what's fact and what's not fact, there were many, many statements made that were purported to be facts that had the look and feel of statistical fact but which are highly questionable or even outright false. And that is a hard thing for the average viewer or listener to sort out while watching the debate in real time.

NEARY: And then that makes style all the more important, I guess, in the end because people are going to get taken by the way certain information is presented.

ELVING: Absolutely.

NEARY: Let's take another call now from Pam, and Pam is calling from Dexter, Oregon. Hi, Pam.

PAM: Hi. Well, two words: climate change. They kind of played around the green economy, and Mitt Romney talked about clean coal, whatever that is. But I was disappointed, not surprised. I know it's a big issue, and it's kind of a hard one to sell because people are more concerned with immediate economy and jobs. But I think President Obama could have made the point when Mitt Romney was talking about $90 billion subsidized for the clean renewable energies that I've read that independent studies show that there's more jobs creating and transitioning to clean renewables that rather than the business as usual.

And, you know, every academy of sciences around the world is in agreement that climate change is happening. It's human caused. And if we don't do something, the world as we know will be changed and - for many generations to come. So, you know, they talked about the green economy and the subsidizing, and I just wish Barack Obama could have gone more into why he gave those subsidies. And it was a perfect opportunity to educate the masses about this issue, which is huge and looming and it's happening, and also how we can turn, you know, the lemons into making lemonade and creating a whole new infrastructure to prepare ourselves for this.

NEARY: All right, Pam. Thanks so much for calling.

PAM: Thank you.

NEARY: I'll have Ron respond. And, you know, that $ 90 billion on alternative energy issue was mentioned twice, and President Obama just didn't respond at all.

ELVING: He didn't want to talk about Solyndra and some of the other companies that got money, got loans from his administration at a time when the market for solar panels was about to tank and the Chinese were flooding the market with cheaper solar panels. And as a result, the efforts that were made to really jumpstart this industry in this country were largely stillborn or at least hugely restrained. He didn't want to get into all that. He didn't want to talk about how disappointing that had been. He just wanted to pivot to something else.

He allowed really the $90 billion to be portrayed as somehow in the course of three years having been 50 percent as great a subsidy as we had given to oil and gas over the entire history of oil and gas, in addition to the fact that we continue to subsidize oil and gas production despite its profitability, in addition to that he was comparing apples and oranges in terms of dollars and largely getting away with it. So, again, this is the frustration that many of the president's supporters not understanding why he was quite so diffident.

NEARY: Ron Elving is NPR's senior Washington editor, and you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. We're going to take a call from Beth who's calling from Stillwater, Oklahoma. Hi, Beth. Not getting Beth there. OK. Let's try Jonathan calling from Elmhurst. I'm having a little trouble with the lines here. See if I can manage them. Jonathan, are you there?

JONATHAN: Yes. I'm right here.

NEARY: Go ahead.

JONATHAN: Well, I agree with what Ron Elving said before about the discussion about economics can become very dry and abstract, and the biggest issue around economics really is about economic inequality and the lack of fairness and the way in which basically we have redistribution of wealth from the middle class to the upper class, the top 1 percent, and poverty was not mentioned at all. And we have 46 million Americans now living under the poverty line. So there was no discussion about poverty, and it should been raised as a moral issue by both (unintelligible) economic justice, economic inequality. And poverty should have been raised by President Obama.

NEARY: OK. Thanks for your call, Jonathan. We're not hearing a lot about that at all in this...

ELVING: Actually, the one reference that was made to the increase in poverty came from Governor Romney. He referred to there being more people in poverty. He referred to the increased number of people on food stamps, and he said that that was a huge policy failing. And it was an indication that the president's economic policies hadn't worked, and that we all needed to care more. I believe he might even have made reference to it in terms of a moral issue but all, of course, as part of an indictment of President Obama's economic program and not as an argument for more programs for the poor, more as an argument for a different kind of economic policy that might create more jobs.

NEARY: All right. We're going to try and get Beth in Stillwater, Oklahoma, again. Hi, Beth.

BETH: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

NEARY: You're welcome. Go ahead.

BETH: OK. Well, I kind of thought the cards were sort of stacked against Obama last night as far as social issues went just because there really weren't much mention of them, especially LGBT issues, which is the - an issue that's pretty close to my heart, and he's done so much for it. I mean, the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" and the addition of marriage equality to the Democratic platform. I feel like that's something that would've given him kind of the bravado that Mitt Romney supposedly had. And then, you know, and it's super relevant given that four states are about to vote on it. So I think that's something that I really wish they had touched on.

NEARY: OK. Thanks for your call, Beth. Ron, let's respond to that.

ELVING: Interesting, really, when you stop and think about it. One of the things that has been observed but maybe not nearly as much as some of these other points about the debate is the degree to which both of these candidates seem to be contesting the middle. They were looking for undecided voters who are relatively few, according to all the polls, or those people who might still be reachable as they say. And they did not want to emphasize either of them. Their appeal to their hardcore base, which is so dominant in so much of our discussion now and so much of the media, it was not really an appeal by Romney for hardcore conservatives.

He talked about how, you know, he wasn't really for tax cuts so much, and he talked about all these other things that he wanted to do and even said nice things about green energy. President Obama also didn't want to bring up some of these social issues that lots of people would like to hear him talk about.

NEARY: NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Thanks so much for being here with us, Ron.

ELVING: Good to be with you.

NEARY: And coming up, we'll be talking with Iron Chef Jose Garces about his new book. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.