2008 What Was Really Wrong with the ABC Debate
posted by April 17 at 11:40 AMon
In the Morning News comments on last night’s ABC debate, commenter el makes the following worthwhile point:
I love this catch-all phrase “stick to the issues”, as if somewhere there were a list of the “issues” and the “non-issues”. Magically, I am back in high school and my english teacher is warning me about the “real world” as opposed to apparently fabricated world i was then inhabiting. It’s a bullshit distinction.
I agree, for the most part, and so I think it’s fine for journalists to ask Obama about his relationship with William Ayers (whose belligerent 9/11 quotes were published the morning of 9/11, when, recall it or not, we all talked about domestic terrorism quite differently) or to ask Clinton to explain why she felt the need to exaggerate the degree of danger she was in in Tuzla (after all, 58% of voters now say that she is isn’t honest or trustworthy).
But the most useful thing about a debate format is getting the two candidates into a room to compare and aggressively contrast their ideas. When the idea contained in a given “issue” is “Is this candidate honest?” or “Does that candidate keep shady company?”, you’re basically throwing away time (and this in one of the only debates that was broadcast on network television, so people without cable could watch it at home). The opposing candidate is not going to have a useful opinion on these subjects. There is no legitimate pro and con to be argued. The clearest demonstration of this fact is that Clinton voluntarily gave up speaking time at one point, and probably should have conceded her second opportunity to attack Obama on Jeremiah Wright, because it just made her sound ruthless and repetitive.
Basically, I don’t think the debate completely lacked issues, but it was noticeably deficient in debatable ideas.
That said, there were some opportunities late in the debate for the candidates to clarify the Democratic position on taxes, and they flubbed it. Obama needs to get a better answer on raising the Social Security payroll cap, which is one of the ways he’s shown he has a more progressive view of taxation.
My dream response to those tax questions would have been something like this: First, a joke about how everyone seems to see the ceiling of the middle class hovering just above their own income level. Then, stats. The median household income in 2006 was just $48,201. In affluent, expensive Manhattan, where Clinton has her offices, the median household income is just $47,030. The vast majority of people pay Social Security payroll taxes on their entire income. Everything they earn gets taxed. A lucky few individuals who personally—not as a household—earn more than $97,500 a year (that’s between 6 and 7% of the population) stop paying Social Security taxes on any income above that level. It really shouldn’t be controversial, but here it is: If you personally earn more than $97,500 a year, you’re upper middle class. You should shoulder the same burden for maintaining the social safety net as people who earn less than you do. (Here, Obama would probably say he’s open to a donut, where the additional income between $97,500 and $200,000 isn’t taxed, but then the tax kicks back in on income over $200,000. But I prefer eliminating the cap altogether.) Reforming the payroll tax wouldn’t be particularly burdensome, it would help deal with the coming generational strain on the Social Security system, and it would be fairer to the middle class, who right now are shouldering a disproportionate amount of responsibility for Social Security.