Actors and professional athletes alike will tell you that when they face a high level of talent on stage or on the field, it betters their own performance. President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney sharpened their approaches in their second debate before the election, and the result was the meatiest discussion yet on domestic issues before a mass audience on national television.
College costs, gas prices, immigration, workplace gender discrimination, and trade policy. Who knew these candidates even cared about that stuff before tonight? It turns out they do, and they can actually articulate their own positions as well as those of their opponent. And then they can rebut the statements from the other guy. That’s what good debaters do. In theory, that makes for good policymaking, too.
There were some revelations. Romney gave the most passionate speech in favor of immigration that we have seen to date from him, tacking away from some of his harsher statements in the campaign primary. “We welcome legal immigrants into this country,” he said. “I want our legal system to work better. You shouldn’t have to hire a lawyer to figure out how to get into this country legally.”
Romney also suggested he might even support some version of the Dream Act for undocumented immigrant youth in the United States, a bill he vowed earlier in the year to veto. He said kids who are brought to this country illegally should have a “pathway to permanent residence in the United States,” and suggested that military enrollment was one way of achieving that. He is likely responding to efforts from other Republicans — most prominently Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. — to soften conservatives’ stance on immigration.
Obama, for his part, challenged Republicans to deliver the votes in Congress for a comprehensive immigration bill. “I can deliver a whole bunch of Democrats to get to comprehensive immigration reform,” he said. That’s an argument he and his advisers have been making for two years, even though Hispanic and immigrant advocates grumble that the White House has not tried hard enough.
Obama can be confident on his position on immigration because most Democrats support him. It’s a touchier topic for Republicans, who worry about being soft on illegal immigrants. Still, Romney laid out a plan that sounded more plausible than “border security first.” Points all around.
On energy, Romney could be more confident. He promised more drilling, more permits, and more licenses. He also said he would approve the Keystone XL pipeline. He promised an aggressive energy policy and made sure that listeners knew that Obama could not claim to be “Mr. Coal” or “Mr. Oil.” Republicans are clear about their stance on energy. They want more drilling and production in just about every area.
Obama went beyond his stump speech on clean energy and green jobs to talk about how domestic oil production had grown under his administration. He explained why he revoked leases on public lands — companies were just sitting on them. He also managed to get in a few zingers on Romney’s plan, talking about “phantom jobs” in the energy industry on which his contender leans so heavily.
Even on tax policy, something that everyone cares about and the candidates can’t seem to get away from, there was new information. Romney said the top 5 percent of taxpayers (his definition of wealthy) would get limits on tax deductions. That’s a new detail on a plan that the Obama camp has been trashing for months for lack of specifics. Romney clarified that he wants to lower rates for everyone, but also cap the dollar amount of deductions they can have.
Obama made sure that his policy was clear: He’ll allow tax cuts to expire for families' income of $250,000 or more, not $1 million as was implied by Vice President Joe Biden last week. He used the opportunity to ding Romney on his own tax rate (roughly 13 percent), pointing out his wealth.
On college costs, Obama and Romney largely agreed. Romney said he wants to keep Pell Grants growing. Obama said he grew Pell Grants. They are both right. The program has continued to grow, largely because the amount of eligible recipients is growing.
Romney, for his part, appears to be piling on his earlier statement in the first debate that he won’t cut funding for education — also a revelation that flies in the face of his GOP running mate Paul Ryan’s budget plan. Obama has spent more time on the campaign trail talking about college, but Romney knows the issue is a winner for him as well. The debate solidified his commitment to it.
For a debate that is supposed to be the closest to the people, Romney and Obama gave the listeners the kind of policy conversation that could come from a pair of college lecturers to a bunch of skeptical class presidents. The candidates took the questions seriously and responded with sophisticated answers. Like good sparring opponents, they also went after each other with gusto, interrupting each other to call out lies and misstatements. The arguments they made showed respect their audience’s intelligence. They dug in to the issues rather than attempting to gain their sympathy or make their opponent look bad. That’s a win for everyone.