What I saw at the debate

There was one great absentee at this week’s presidential debate: America’s poor. It seems impossible for politicians of either party to speak any more about the existence of chronic poverty and those who suffer it.

David Gushee

I chose to tweet my way through the first presidential debate in the company of a number of students and others who have joined that virtual world. The perspective of this cohort of 20-somethings definitely affects my own as I offer reflections on what I observed from that stage in Denver.

The first thing we noticed was the steamrolling of the agreed format and of the moderator, the aged Jim Lehrer. Spurring the chaos was what seemed to be an effort by each candidate, but especially Gov. Romney, to get the last word on every subject.

I have seen this before. It is a routine feature of cable news shows in which Democrats and Republicans are being simultaneously interviewed.

At one level, it’s no more than just rhetorical gamesmanship. The one who gets the last word is like the home team in baseball getting the last at bat. It also happens because each side is routinely outraged by the other’s claims.

But if no one stops this cycle the argument will continue into eternity. It was the moderator’s role to enforce the rules, but Lehrer was bullied into submission most of the time. Future debate moderators should bring a vuvuzela to keep order.

Political debates reward aggression, and on this night Gov. Romney was the more aggressive candidate. The response to this aggression on twitter and in the commentary afterward was fascinating.

Liberal talk-show host Chris Matthews was among the commentators demeaning the president for not being more aggressive in his own approach.

Yet Diana Butler Bass, who is quite active on twitter, noted the heavily gendered nature of this kind of response. President Obama did not throw elbows or make verbal war, which can either be viewed as “weak” in some masculinist sense or as a noteworthy expression of civilized restraint.

Catholic ethicist Charles Camosy, noting the chorus of criticism for President Obama, predicted a “bloodbath” in future encounters as a result. My students were among those who found themselves further alienated from American politics and political-media culture as it now exists.

Turning to the actual substance of the debate, it was difficult to sort through the competing factual claims as they were being made. We should all be grateful for the army of fact-checkers who now are attempting to keep Americans tethered to something approaching a shared reality in our brutally polarized culture.

Let’s focus on three examples of different kinds of fact-fights:

--Romney says he will cut income tax rates across the board by 20 percent without increasing the deficit. He says he will make this happen by eliminating or reducing all kinds of unspecified tax breaks and also by growing the economy at such a rate that tax revenues rise. It is impossible to verify the accuracy of such a claim, because he has not named the tax breaks and no one can predict exact rates of economic growth in advance.

--Gov. Romney said that middle-class American household income is down $4,300 since President Obama took office. That claim is accurate. But the dispute is over who is to blame for that decline. That partly involves when to start accounting for the impact of the new president’s economic policies and what to make of the Republican Congress blocking the president’s economic growth plans after 2010.

--Romney said the president has added almost as much to the federal debt as all prior presidents combined. That is factually incorrect, but the numbers are staggering: $10.6 trillion until 2009 and another $5.4 trillion since then. Of course, the president does not stand alone in creating that extra $5.4 trillion. We do have a legislature, so it comes back to the question of how to assign responsibility.

Even more interesting disputes have to do with what Glen Stassen and I describe as the pivotal factor of trusts and loyalties in moral decision making. Who do we trust? To whom are we most loyal?

President Obama demonstrates more trust in government, especially the federal government, in helping people access economic opportunity and in providing a floor below which they will not have to go when times are tough.

Gov. Romney demonstrates more trust in state government than federal government and more trust in business than in government. He shrewdly positioned himself as more pragmatic and less ideological during this debate than at any time during his campaign -- not no government, but less government; not no regulations, but smarter regulations. Whether this is the “real” Romney at this point is a judgment voters will have to make.

There was a great absentee at the debate: America’s poor. It seems impossible for politicians of either party to speak any more about the existence of chronic poverty and those who suffer it.

There are plans aplenty for protecting the middle class, but little on offers for those who haven’t reached the middle class and can hardly imagine it. The church has an important role in keeping the politicians from forgetting those most needy among us.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.