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October 6, 2012
The Debate Farce
by P. SAINATH
The young African-American stepped forward as if to make a solemn political
statement. And he did pop one that took his audience by surprise. He and his six
friends (all African-Americans, ages ranging from 13 to 30) had just held their New
York subway audience spellbound with a stunning exhibition of break-dancing.
As they wound up, one of them walked around, not with the usual hat or tin to collect
small cash, but with a big bucket. The message, quite rightly, was that they deserved
to be well compensated for their show of extraordinary skill.
Then the spokesman said his piece, deadpan: “And remember folks, Obama wants
change.” Pause. “We want dollars. Obama can keep the change.” As brilliant a line as
you could hope for. The White folks in the enthralled audience seemed embarrassed,
unsure whether it was politically correct to giggle. The young African-Americans in the
audience, however, cracked up in raucous laughter. The irony, the pun, the promise
of Mr. Obama and the parody of his performance — all of it seemed to hit home at the
same time. Mr. Obama’s “Yes, we can” and “We need change” slogans had swiftly
become the fodder of ad jingles and shows by stand-up comics.
That was a year before the presidential campaign debate between Barack Obama
and Mitt Romney on October 3 took the parody further. The President’s most skilled
drum-beaters in the media could not find a generous word on his performance.
However, it wasn’t just that Mr. Obama did badly in the ‘debate’ — he did. Or that Mr.
Romney fared better — he did. Nor does it mean that this election is over with this
debate. It isn’t. What sticks out is how pathetic this debate format is. And how poorly
Mr. Obama has delivered on the — modest — promises he made four years ago.
It’s a huge problem when you shill for the same corporate constituency your opponent
does — only you can’t be as clear cut as he can be about it. When you have not
punished but rewarded the Wall Street mob that tanked the economy in 2008. When
Mr. Obama allows his adversary to get away with some of the worst statements ever
made by a U.S. presidential candidate. Till last week, it looked as if Mitt Romney was
shoring up the Obama campaign, so crazy were his mistakes. Take his comment that
47 per cent of Americans paid no income tax, saw themselves as victims and “so my
job is not to worry about those people.”
That should have sunk him. That it didn’t is also a measure of how much credibility Mr.
Obama has lost in the past four years.
As he enters the final lap of his re-election bid, the jobless numbers are daunting, and
the unemployment rate is above 8 per cent. No President seeking re-election since
Franklin D. Roosevelt has had to contend with such figures. Most of the jobs that
have been created in the past several years are low-wage and low-skill ones. About
half of the over 12 million jobless workers collect few or no unemployment benefits at
all. And some 40 per cent of those out of work have been seeking it for six months or
more. Millions more who want full-time jobs can’t find them.
The latest data from the U.S. Census on income and poverty (out just three weeks
ago) are not joyous. Real media household income “declined between 2010 and
2011,” says the Census report. This is “a second consecutive annual decline.”
Yet, as economist Paul Buccheit points out in Nation of Change: “Based on IRS
figures, the richest 1% nearly tripled its share of America’s after-tax income from 1980-
2006. That’s an extra trillion dollars a year. Then, in the first year after the 2008
recession, they took 93 per cent of all the new income.” Corporate profits doubled in
less than 10 years. As Buccheit writes: “Corporations pay even less than low-wage
American workers. On their 2011 profits of $1.97 trillion, corporations paid $181 billion
in federal income taxes (9%) and $40 billion in state income taxes (2%), for total
income tax burden of 11%. The poorest 20 per cent of American citizens pay 17.4% in
federal, state and local taxes.”
Yet, the word “inequality” did not come up in the Obama-Romney debate. Neither in
terms of a question from ‘moderator’ Jim Lehrer. Nor in the exchanges between the
two. Mr. Obama even stressed that he and Mr. Romney had “similar positions on
social security” which needed “tweaking.” He felt they both agreed the corporate tax
rate was too high and needed to be lowered. (Though he wanted the better off to give
a little bit more for society’s well-being).
Having agreed the corporate tax rate was too high, both candidates traded clichés on
how to protect, nourish and serve the middle class. Neither mentioned that 160 million
Americans could see their tax bills soar after January 1. That’s when the temporary
payroll tax holiday expires. The hikes that it will bring, says The New York Times,
“would be about $95 billion in 2013 alone.” That change, it quotes experts as saying,
could cost the economy a million jobs.
This ‘debate’ did not extend much to foreign policy (that will come up in another
debate). It only touched in passing the two wars that America has fought in the past
decade. One in Iraq launched on lies by the Bush administration and which saw that
country’s overall mortality rate more than double. (From 5.5 deaths per 1,000 persons
before the war began to 13.3 per 1,000 persons by late 2006). The other in
Afghanistan — which Mr. Obama portrayed as a good war in 2008, as against the bad
one in Iraq. His “surge” has failed. This is already America’s longest war. And the
sheer misery of Afghanistan’s people is beyond description. No one knows exactly
how many civilians have died. The two wars have cost trillions of dollars. No points in
the debate, though, on the human and financial costs of the wars.
U.S. presidential election debates, no matter how many millions may watch them, are
now a farce. They are more tightly choreographed than a ballet. Pre-scripting by
arrangement is the norm. Well before the event, the camps of the two candidates
even negotiate which and how many of their family members will join their stars on
stage. After the non-debates, the pundits will debate for days on who “looked more
presidential.” On who had the better lines, the quicker response. And who missed
which opportunity to score a point. But there’s worse.
In a piece on counterpunch.org on “Rigging the Presidential Debates,” consumer
rights crusader Ralph Nader shows how the debates are set up. Mr. Nader scoffs at a
“supine media” that does not seek even basic facts from the candidates. Such as
those on “the secret debate contract negotiated by the Obama and Romney
campaigns that controls the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), the
campaigns’ corporate offspring.”
In the 2004 George Bush-John Kerry debates, both parties agreed in advance not to
seek any further debates. They also agreed to shut out other candidates. And not to
“accept any television or radio air time offers that involve a debate format.” As Mr.
Nader (himself once a presidential candidate) puts it: “Were this deal to be between
two corporations, they could be prosecuted for criminal violation of the antitrust laws.”
One unwritten agreement in all such debates, it appears, is to keep off corporate
crime. Not a whisper on the guilty of 2008 this time. The one vaguely-related mention
of it being from Mr. Obama in terms of “reckless behaviour” — to which he quickly
added “not just on Wall Street.”
Yet, these ‘debates’ will be minutely post-mortemed by the media for days to come.
The Oracles of the airwaves will study the entrails of Wednesday night’s engagement
and their blah and the opinion polls will feed into each other. In fact, the post-debate
coverage could do more to stir up the voters than the ‘debate’ itself. The Romney
camp, cheered by their man’s ‘win’, will crow about it. Which makes the likelihood of
another giant gaffe from him even greater. The Obama crew will soon launch an
offensive, seizing on what it feels were damaging positions that Mr. Romney took. E.
g.: “I won’t put in a tax cut that will add to the deficit. I will not reduce the share paid by
high income individuals.” (When will they hold him to it — after the elections?)
The scripted debates are not over. Nor is the race. There’s a lot yet to rise on the
P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, where this piece appears, and is
the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. Sainath is presently in the US
teaching for the (Fall) semester. He can be reached at: Sainath@princeton.edu.