As President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Governor Mitt Romney and U.S. Representative Paul Ryan meet for the 2012 Presidential Debates, members of Barnard’s faculty respond to the key issues and perspectives, the candidates’ campaigns, and the overall tone of this election season.

October 22, 2012: Presidential Candidates Debate Foreign Policy

Kimberly Marten, Professor of Political Science

I found the debate on foreign policy issues dull and uninspired, lacking vision and depth on both sides. I looked for differences between the policy approaches favored by Romney and Obama, and didn't find too many. Both retreated to the center, and both kept returning to domestic education and economics issues instead.

I did find it striking that Romney seems to believe that the United States can influence the level of political violence in foreign countries. He kept blaming Obama for the "tumult" of the Middle East, saying more should have been done to "prevent the explosion" and in "helping these nations reject extremism." In particular, Romney said the U.S. should locate "responsible parties in Syria" and supply them "with arms to defend themselves."

But the evidence collected by social scientists is overwhelming on three points here, indicating that the U.S. has little influence over current events in the Middle East, and could easily make things worse by trying to do too much. First, as highlighted by economist Alan Krueger, the major cause of popular support for terrorist violence is political inequality inside authoritarian regimes, and despair over being able to change the situation peacefully. There is little the U.S. or anyone in the outside world can do about that, except to avoid supporting dictators. Second, as demonstrated by political scientists Jack Snyder and Edward Mansfield, quick democratization is rarely peaceful. Instead, those whose power is threatened by rapid political change often try to seize the agenda by provoking violence. When the outside world pushes sudden democratization, it can actually make the use of force more likely. And third, as my own recent research on Iraq has shown, the alternative to an authoritarian regime that is cobbled together out of a complex mix of tribal and sectarian identities is not a well-formed, democratically oriented opposition party. Instead it is local militias who run protection rackets, and seek outside patrons to support their activities.  

Many Sunni militias in Iraq were willing to cooperate in turn with Saddam Hussein, with al Qaeda in Iraq, and then with the U.S. military—not because they shared ideological sympathies with any of them, but because they wanted outside money, weapons, and political cover. Some of those same Sunni militias now seem to be throwing their lot in with extremists again, including across what has always been the artificial border between Iraq and Syria. We have seen what appears to be a similar situation emerging in Libya. What makes Romney think that Syria will be any different?  The fact is that the U.S. cannot control where its weapons end up, and cannot control the political decisions made by foreign groups or leaders.  

Romney said in the debate, "I see our influence receding." But the idea that the U.S. ever had much influence over the domestic decisions made by foreign regimes or populations is a dangerous illusion. 

Kimberley Johnson, Associate Professor of Political Science

During last night’s debate, I was struck by the limited way that the American political system views the world. Out of the multitudes of regions, states, and peoples in the world, only a few made it onto the debate. Not surprisingly, the Middle East is a perennial topic, as is the issue of terrorism. Pakistan, our less than faithful ally, was also discussed, but again through the prism of our engagement in the Middle East and the war on terror. Should we divorce it? Iran was extensively discussed; rightly so because of the threat of its nuclear ambitions. The solution posed by Romney, to indict Ahmadinejad for incitement of genocide was novel. China also entered the debate, but in many ways, only through the prism of our current economic situation and as a way to score a point against Bain Capital. Russia was a small debate point as was Mali (in northern Africa); however, the latter only as a place where Al Qaeda or jihadists were on the rise.

Critically important global issues such as climate change, or the massive economic crisis in the European Union, were ignored. Latin America was mentioned, but only in the context as a market for “our goods,” rather than a region undergoing tremendous economic and political changes. There was no discussion of the havoc another war, the one on drugs, was wreaking on countries like Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia.

While China was mentioned, “Asia” encompasses a huge proportion of the world’s population. India—the world’s second largest in terms of population—wasn’t mentioned at all. Granted the debate was only 90 minutes—but the world is a vast, complex place, and rather than hear each party’s standard set of talking points on the Middle East or China, perhaps asking about other countries or regions would have elicited better information on how each candidate views the world, and the ways in which the American government engages with other countries and copes with complex issues.

Finally, I was struck by how the American military plays a dual role. First, the military (and its budget) symbolizes our strength, our commitment. Even though the U.S.’s military budget is the equivalent of the next 10 countries combined (and these aren’t lightweight countries: China, UK, France, Japan, India, Saudi Arabia, Germany, etc.), we never seem to have enough. Even saying something like this makes me uneasy; I’ll be accused of a lack of patriotism. Of course there are bad people and states in the world, and of course, a good offense is also a good defense, right? Yet, when will the U.S. have enough arms and soldiers to feel like it can project both strength and also feel safe? The second thing that struck me about the military during the debate is the unacknowledged role of military Keynesian spending. Why is government spending for battleships and not bridges? Why does Virginia get the benefits of federal funds to pay for jobs in military shipyards while there aren’t enough federal funds to allow for mass transit on the Tappan Zee Bridge, and the hundreds of construction jobs and decreased environmental costs that mass transit would provide to the New York City region?

October 11, 2012: Vice Presidential Candidates Debate Foreign and Domestic Policy

Perry G. Mehrling, Professor of Economics

“It’s the economy, stupid”, okay, but what do we mean by the economy?  Three questions, and three only, organized the discussion about the economy in the vice presidential debate last night:  Jobs, Entitlements, and Taxes.  Notably, neither Biden nor Ryan was willing to commit to a specific timeline for bringing unemployment below 6%; both preferred to use the question as an opportunity to establish their own talking points.  Good debate tactics perhaps, but I detected also an unexpected skepticism about the connection between economic policy and economic outcomes, a skepticism shared by both sides notwithstanding their quite different policy proposals.   Both are for Jobs, of course, but first they are for their preferred policies.

Both Biden and Ryan accepted, without challenge, the moderator’s questionable assertion that Medicare and Social Security were both going broke, and then limited debate to technocratic details, yawn.  Similarly, the tax debate was more or less limited to the question of how to address the looming expiration of the Bush tax cuts; who should pay more and how much?

On all three questions, Biden positioned himself as the anti-plutocrat, speaking for Romney’s famous 47% and Ryan’s 30% of “takers.”  On all three questions, Ryan positioned himself as the champion of “small business,” the engine of job creation. 

Biden’s repeated appeal to “common sense” and “who do you trust” no doubt polls well, but is the economy really about common sense and trust? 

We are living in a teachable moment, when long-stable foundational economic assumptions are shifting beneath our feet.  Instability, inequality, and uncertainty are on everyone’s minds, but not on any politician’s lips.  Financial globalization is the outstanding economic fact of our lives, but you would never know it from the debate last night.

Kimberley Johnson, Associate Professor of Political Science
Vice President John Nance Garner supposedly said that the position of vice president wasn’t worth a warm bucket of a certain kind of bodily fluid. Indeed once the election is over, the vice president rarely leads the evening news. At the same time, the choice of a presidential running mate can play an important role in a presidential campaign. For several generations, the vice presidential candidate was a means of satisfying regional or ideological tensions within a party. Sometimes the vice presidential candidate’s role is to “balance” a shortcoming that seems threatening to the chances of the presidential candidate—such as inexperience or ethnicity or religion. Robert Caro’s recent volume on Lyndon Johnson capture the paradox and powerlessness of the vice presidency after the election is over. If the vice presidential candidate is on the winning side, he (sadly, no she yet) remains largely out of the presidential limelight. If on the losing side, the vice presidential candidate more or less retreats back to the life they had before the glare of the election. Yet during an election, sitting vice president or the candidate for the vice presidency reemerges as a critical part of the overall campaign narrative.

Last night’s debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Representative Paul Ryan highlighted the paradox of the vice presidency. The fortune of each campaign rested on the shoulders of two people who, in the long run, will probably only be of interest to the small intrepid group of historians. What were the stakes?

Ryan had to satisfy two goals in the debate. First, he had to not say or do anything that would take away from the Romney campaign’s regained momentum. Three weeks ago, the Romney campaign was under pressure as supporters and pundits gnashed their teeth over the candidate’s decline in the polls. In addition to maintaining the renewed momentum of the campaign, at the same time, Ryan had to continue to persuade swing state voters that Obama’s presidency was enough of a failure to vote for Romney. Ryan was clear (again, numbers for both sides should be checked) that this was a “choice” election; yet a Republican would walk away feeling that she had seen a less than full-throated articulation of the Republican party’s stances. For example on the abortion issue, Ryan was clear that he was against abortion but added for the first time an exception in the case of rape, incest, or the health of the mother. This was very different from his previous stances. Will voters notice the discrepancy, or will they embrace Ryan’s stance that the sincerity of his belief ought to be the focus of their concern?

Biden’s job in the debate was clear: to stanch the sense that President Obama had critically wounded his re-election with the listless performance of the first presidential debate. After savoring several weeks of a post-convention bounce in the polls, the Obama campaign came crashing down to the earth, and faced a large degree of finger pointing and hysterical punditry on the Democratic side. Biden’s job was to stop the bleeding; to present a strong aggressive articulation of the Obama’s précis for re-election, and to change the narrative. Did he succeed? I suspect if the viewer was a Democrat, she was reassured that the Obama campaign had re-started its engines after a highly visible stall. Will the Obama campaign regain its previous heights in the polls? Probably not, most polls show a return to the very close race that existed in the summer. Overall, this debate was not a decisive battle in favor of one side or the other. Each walked away feeling that their case was made. Ryan made a credible first appearance on the national stage. He’ll be back in some capacity. But certainly Biden reassured a nervous Democratic party.

October 3, 2012: Presidential Candidates Debate Domestic Policy

Kimberley Johnson, Associate Professor of Political Science
Debates are in many ways about managing expectations and creating a takeaway in the minds of the voters. In this respect, Mitt Romney did both. For Romney—who for the past few weeks has been suffering from negative press coverage and criticism from within his party—last night’s debate was a needed pivot away from the recent negativity and a chance to craft a more positive view of the candidate and his campaign. For the past week or so, the Romney campaign was steadily lowering expectations about his performance in the debate. Why? Quite frankly, if the bar is set low enough, clearing it seems like a pleasant surprise. The conversation changes from how ineffective the candidate is to how much more effective he is, considering we didn’t expect much. So even in the last few hours before the debate, the Romney campaign put out that the candidate had actually spent a sleepless night because of a passing freight train constantly blowing its horn. Whether this claim was true remains to be verified; however, if the media had heard this story but then saw a Romney that was much more direct and vigorous in his argument, and who tried to make a case that he was the champion of the middle class – the media in turn would argue that Romney had “redeemed” himself and put his campaign back on track. This judgment fits within the “horse race” narrative that the media often uses to frame presidential campaigns.

The substance of the debate may have helped in satisfying expectations and creating a takeaway for voters watching. However, the uneven moderating of the event was not helpful. Again, the “facts” and numbers proffered by both should be checked. Nonetheless, given that the presidential campaign has, until now, largely been dueling ads and individual speeches, the debate offered the chance to see the candidates engage with each other. (As an aside, there was a bit of alpha handshaking going on at the beginning; who was going to let go first?) Both Obama and Romney laid out a fairly clear picture of what each candidate and his party saw as the proper role of government in the economy, healthcare, education, energy, and defense. In a campaign that pundits argue is a toss-up between either a choice election or a referendum, the debate offered viewers a bit of both.

Who won?  The polls will be out today and tomorrow. I suspect that each side saw exactly what it wanted in its candidate; the question is, will this motivate each side’s supporters and sway any undecided voters out there? Yes, and perhaps.   

A final aside. I watched the debate with my 8-year-old daughter. About 15 minutes in, she suddenly exclaims, “Why is it always men? Always men! That’s kind of sexist.” (Yes, I work at a women's college.) I told her about Hilary Clinton and the fact that she was now Secretary of State. She coolly responded, “But still no girl has actually won for president.”  We kept watching the debate.

Michelle Smith, Assistant Professor of Political Science
I am not an electoral politics specialist, nor do I study policy or the executive branch. I am a political theorist, which means that I am interested in the conceptual foundations of political institutions, political commitments, and behavior. I will leave it to the professional fact-checkers to measure the relative truthfulness of each candidate and the partisans to crow over their man's clear victory.

During the debate, I was again struck by the similarity of the candidates. By this, I don't mean to suggest agreement over "issues" but instead a comfortable consensus over a certain worldview. They each envision a meritocratic society whose commonality is achieved by and large through the means of exchange: Better finances for more efficient businesses that might sell cheaper products and of course provide more jobs for the middle class. Both are committed to a robust military, well-funded enough to continue fighting the war on terror, with precious little mention of the ill effects of that war on the people living in the countries where the battles occur or, for that matter, on the civil liberties and rights we claim to hold dear. I am less interested in how each marshaled the facts—did Romney lie more or did Obama? Did Obama provide more "specifics" or did Romney?—than I am in the narrowness of framework(s) they used to organize those facts.

Neither candidate spoke to the broad and frightening socio-political developments of the last several decades: The movement of resources—investment, talent, vision of the function and meaning of business—from making (manufacturing, engineering, etc.) to taking (finance); the remarkable rise in income inequality and poverty; and the increasingly apparent lack of sustainability of our commitment to growth, growth, growth at any cost. Why should this be? Among other things, both candidates seem to equate the American people—or at least the American electorate—to the middle class, as if 39 million Americans are not living at or very near the poverty line, and without any real regard (nor any sense of shock or indignation) that the one percent is 288 times wealthier than the median US household. If electoral debates are to be regarded as "democracy in action," as a friend and colleague remarked to me today, then we live in a rather exclusive democracy indeed.