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Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Tie Goes to the Runner-Up?

The first 2012 Presidential debate conducted October 3 will probably represent a source of frustration for supporters of either candidate. Mitt Romney did well enough to arguably tie or "win" the debate on preparation and focused answers but probably not well enough to move the needle in the swing states, some of which are already voting and casting his fate in stone. Barack Obama didn't "lose" in a manner likely to reverse the margins in the swing states but failed to connect on numerous pitches right down the middle that should have been knocked out of the park. Here are some of those pitches.

The Role of Government in Education

Both candidates were asked to summarize their view of the role of the federal government in education and in general. Romney cleverly quoted snippets from the Constitution used as the set background to itemize the government's role in protecting life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and expanded upon the happiness theme to encompass the right to start your own business and pursue your own dreams. In the case of education, Romney used the question to reference his support to return more control of education from the Federal government to states via voucher programs to give parents in poorly performing districts a chance to send their child elsewhere.

Obama's answer stated that the responsibility is definitely split between states and the federal government and the federal government should ASSIST but not necessarily DRIVE education. He missed several key opportunities in this response.

Missing in his response was a historical reminder on exactly WHY the federal government currently has so much involvement in local education. The federal government is involved now because states were doing a HORRIBLE job at providing a uniform level of education even when they tried and that MANY states were overfunding rich / white districts while underfunding poor / black districts. If one assumes that the share of current federal education dollars for Texas or Mississippi is $X billion and the federal government decides to either just write a check for $X billion to those states with no strings attached or decides to let them tax themselves and spend it as they please, does anyone think $X billion will be spent on education in those states? Or will they spend it on other priorities or simply revert to past behavior and favor some districts while starving others? If that happens, should the rest of us in the United States stand by as one state purposely chooses to cripple the education and future earning power of a significant portion of its population?

In the case of school vouchers, how does a voucher program jibe with the Republican mantra of personal accountability? If every taxpaying parent has the choice of voting on their own local school taxes AND still getting a "voucher" (paid for by what? -- federal taxes or state taxes?) to send their kid to a better school, what will happen to school tax rates with those incentives? Everyone will vote to lower their own taxes while hoping to send their children via a voucher to "some other" school that's better. Where will those better schools be if every taxpayer votes the same way?

The States as Laboratories of Democracy, Innovation and Cost Saving

Questions involving the deficit and healthcare prompted Romney to state his support of shifting Medicare funding out of the Federal government back to the states who have been BEGGING to take on that responsibility because they have their own ideas on how to provide those services more effectively. This claim has many flaws, none of which were referenced in Obama's reply.

Can anyone name a state that has requested to run Medicare out of its budget?

Can anyone identify a single program in any state that operates with 2 percent administrative costs like Medicare? (CBO estimates, not those of a liberal or conservative think tank.)

If the cost of Medicare is shifted from the federal budget to the state level, how does that reduce the taxes on business so they can hire people? Instead of paying $2300 per employee to the Federal government, a business is now going to pay $2300 in higher state taxes for the same service. Cash is cash. If that $2300 dollars was the difference between hiring a new employee or not, it won't matter if the business is writing a check to the IRS or their state Department of Revenue.


Both candidates were asked how they would operate in the continued partisan gridlock to get anything done on their new agenda items. Romney cited his work as Governor in Massachusetts dealing with a legislature that was 87 percent Democratic. He met with them once a week, listened to their ideas, and still got stuff done. Well Mitt, did Massachusetts Democrats convene a private caucus meeting the day of your Inauguration as Governor and form a pact to block everything you did? Of course not, they didn't need to. With an 87 percent share, they could vote for what they wanted and win every veto override vote. You HAD to get along to get ANY of your ideas incorporated into law.

In Obama's case, he didn't have a veto-proof majority in either the House or Senate. He also faced Republicans who decided on January 20, 2009 to thwart ANY legislation of ANY type proposed by the Obama Administration for the sole purpose of making Democrats look bad, even at the expense of the economy. When Obama did attempt to work with the Republican House, he worked with their designated leader John Boehner who exhibited ZERO control over the ulta-conservatives and essentially could not act as leader of the Republican position on anything. The Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell was essentially a co-conspirator with the Do-Nothing gang in the House and provided zero opportunity for bipartisanship. All of these points should have been mentioned by Obama and were never brought up.

Death Panels

In the course of the questions regarding healthcare, Romney raised the spectre of a small, unelected panel of government experts who would vote on healthcare treatments you could receive. The premise behind this depiction of "death panels" is that this small group of unknown, faceless bureaucrats would be making specific decisions for your doctor on a case by case, test by test basis.

The counter arguments to this are numerous and easy to state but Obama only got a few of them.

First, this "panel" concept is equivalent to a concept used in EVERY big business to identify, document and implement "best practices." If you run large computer systems, a "best practice" is "make sure you have a backup generator for power" or "test software changes in a test environment before deploying them to production." In health care, "best practices" can be as simple as WASH YOUR HANDS BEFORE TOUCHING A PATIENT or may involve identifying choices for prosthetic knees that actually DON'T improve patient functionality or yield the desired minimum of post-op pain and thus shouldn't be used except in special circumstances.

Second, the functions of such a panel already exist today in the form of specialized administration firms which review every request for a test made by your doctor and approve it or deny it based upon internal company procedures as interpreted by teams of nurses and doctors. If your doctor fails to obtain permission BEFORE a test, guess what? You pay for it. These "administration" processes are no more transparent or accountable than a similar function operated at a national level with a single standard.


In the game of rigged expectations and who's up and who's down, a tie at the rhetorical level and a slight win at the performance level would probably dictate assigning the win to Romney. However, obtaining a technical win with such a small margin won't materially change the race. However, it should serve as a wake-up call to Obama to back up, avoid getting mired in technical details and focus on the concept BEHIND the questions and the core of his opponent's answers to formulate a more concise but broad brush reply. Voters won't remember the numbers, but they WILL remember responses that cleanly map back to simpler, more generic principles of fairness, efficiency and historical reality.