Today, we vote. By tonight, we will know if Barack Obama earned another four years in the White House, or if Mitt Romney becomes the forty-fifth president of the United States.
These campaigns emphasized two very distinct visions for America. There is Barack Obama, the made-for-America-media success story, whose presidential record is most visibly marked by the stimulus bill (that “saved the auto industry,” or “undermined American capitalism”), the Affordable Care Act, a shockingly inflexible Congress, a less-than-stellar economic recovery and eliminating Osama Bin Laden. This season, he focused on applying lessons learned in office to America’s middle-class, and he’s in it for “all those folks…”
Then there is Mitt Romney. The Bain Capital executive is not often lauded for his personable nature, and his political gaffes are widely recognized. There is that “47 percent” video we all love to hate and the infamous comment about some women in a binder, for example. Where Obama’s narrative highlights the middle-class folks his policies assist and support, Romney’s five-point economic reform plan promises jobs, jobs, jobs. The Republican candidate is probably best known for his transition from “Moderate Mitt,” the Massachusetts governor whose health care plan inspired the Affordable Care Act, to the staunchly conservative politician who has changed his views on abortion. Still, the “flip-flopper” came ready to play during the first debate. He presented a coherent political message that put President Obama on the defensive almost immediately, and, when the president failed to effectively respond, sent the media into a tail spin.
In round two, President Obama and Governor Romney debated at Hofstra University. There, the narratives, strengths, and weaknesses of each campaign were most evident.
The “town hall” forma tshould have encouraged some real talk. Yet, each candidate’s response was conventional, reinforcing a party platform by harking back to the same basic American tropes. Where should we go? College. What do we deserve? A job. What do we all want to end up doing? Raising a family.
In the perfect democracy, a “town hall” style debate would compel the candidates to blur hard lines and engage with voters in a political conversation. But political middle ground is no-man’s land. Our two presidential candidates are especially polarized this season, and neither is walking down the red, white, and blue brick road to Bipartisan City by November 6. Perhaps it is naive to assume politicians are willing to consider ditching the stump speech for the round table discussion, which raises the question: how can voters motivate politicians to up their game?
The challenge is visibly raising our standards to prompt changes in the political environment. Changes that devalue responses staked in all we take for granted as traditionally “American.” It starts by asking tougher questions. Questions that invite politicians to pause and consider, rather than pivot and pick the liberal or conservative version of a conventional theme.
Three questions from the second presidential debate, rephrased, could require candidates address voters’ concerns outside the context of mainstream messaging, tackling the “values” most take for granted as uniquely “American.” Voters should actively question why one-liners like “You are entitled to a college education,” “You deserve a good-paying job” and “You will want to, and should be able to, raise a family someday” are acceptable, default responses on which both parties rely. This election we, as voters, failed to push politicians past every version of three lame responses. Let’s address it.
When twenty-year-old Jeremy asks, “What can you say to reassure me, but more importantly my parents, that I will be able to sufficiently support myself after I graduate?” President Obama shouldn’t get away with his canned response, “Jeremy, first of all, your future is bright. And the fact that you’re making an investment in your education is critical” because the underlying question is, “This society values education and tells me no college degree, no options. Based on this economy, and the experiences of my older, college-educated friends, I’m not convinced my college education will really pay off. How can you assure me my investment in education guarantees me better job opportunities, given the state of the economy today?” Suddenly, a complete answer addresses the value of education from kindergarten onward, the social inequality associated with disparate education opportunities across the country, the investments young people make in college educations, and, then, the return that investment provides in a lackluster economy.
When working-woman Katherine asks, “In what ways do you intend to rectify the inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn?” and we have President Obama say, “This is not just a women’s issue, this is a family issue,” and Governor Romney tell an anecdote about how he understood his chief of staff, a woman, needed to get home to care for her two kids, it’s clear we’re not living in a post-feminist society. The immediate jump to women’s working lives compromising their family lives (read, responsibilities) is troubling. The question Katherine asked was not, “How can you make it easier for working women to come home to their families with as much money as men?” but “In a society that, theoretically, no longer tolerates discrimination on the basis of sex and gender, how is it even possible, given the Lilly Ledbetter bill, women still make 72 percent less than their male counterparts?” Now, both candidates would need to address the gender gap as it affects individual women in the workplace and tackle the traditional perception of working-women as automatically working-moms. Women aren’t one undifferentiated voting block and “women’s issues” are not inextricably linked to family issues. It’s time voters stopped accepting politicians’ from relying on that logic to attract women’s political support.
The best question asked at the second presidential debate was “What is the biggest difference between you and George W. Bush, and how do you differentiate yourself from George W. Bush?” Neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney could answer with, “Susan Katz, you deserve to know that, and, as president, I’ll make sure you do because you have a college degree, a job, and a family.” The response here needed to differentiate, create context, defend and present how the candidate would lead, why he is worth following, why he deserves a vote, so these are the sorts of open-ended questions Americans should ask candidate running for high office.
Questions articulated in these new ways credit voting Americans, an informed and invested crowd. The negative tone pervading Election 2012 is, in many ways, the ultimate wake-up call. The latest polls suggest President Obama has earned another four years, but at the end of it all these horse race politics leave Americans ill-informed, uncertain, and hopelessly attached to the same story, different byline. Tonight, against all that red, white, and blue, think about how well you know your next president; make sure it’s not only by his political spin or his gaffes. Because you are entitled to trope-less responses, and you deserve to understand complicated positions.
Photos courtesy of Flickr users nmhschool and Irene2005