Did Obama do a better job of challenging the weakness of Romney’s positions in the second debate? Yes. But it’s hard to revel in that, because what the debate in New York told me was that even if Obama wins the election, the right has already won.
How can that be? How can the right win on a platform that promises to create jobs when they control the government even though government can’t create jobs (in their words), while spending even less on everything in society except the military which never asked for the money in the first place, while promising to cut the deficit by reducing revenue and eliminating tax deductions which wouldn’t make up the difference even if they did specify them (and they won’t)?
For the answer, look to what the supposed liberal said in Tuesday’s debate:
Education and Infrastructure: Yes, Obama talked about investing in schools, alternative sources of energy, and general infrastructure. But these aren’t uniquely liberal; both parties have long supported them to one degree or another. Just because the G.O.P. has nearly abandoned them for now doesn’t make them liberal ideas. Obama walked the center line like it was a tight rope.
“… Fact check — there was no Republican from Texas or West Virginia on the stage that night. No, it was President Obama.”
Taxes: Sure, Obama is fighting the G.O.P.’s insistence that the rich should not have to pay more in taxes, but he’s not arguing for any 80-90% F.D.R.-era tax levels. He’s only asking for a return to the rates the super-rich paid under Clinton: 39.6%. That’s even lower than during most of the Reagan years, when top rates were 50%. And people like Romney need not worry even about that; most of their income is capital gains, and under Obama those would still be taxed at less than 25%.
Energy: The first guy who spoke on this topic touted high production levels of oil, natural gas, and coal. But wait, fact check — there was no Republican from Texas or West Virginia on the stage that night. No, it was President Obama. “We’re actually drilling more on public lands than in the previous administration and my — the previous president was an oil man.” Yes, Obama boasted about drilling more than George W. Bush.
Sure, he went on to plug efficiency and clean energy, but cheering on record levels of fossil fuel production and parroting the coal industry’s “clean coal” oxymoron are moves I’d expect from a Republican in a ten-gallon hat. As for climate change, it’s true that if Republicans win the Senate, James Inhofe, the G.O.P.’s top climate change denier, would chair the committee that oversees the EPA. We’d hear no plans to fight climate change from the Senate. But 90 minutes of prime time debate and we didn’t hear anything about climate change from the Democratic candidate, either.
Gun control: The horror of large-scale massacres going down in schools, theaters, and other public places is an awkward reminder for Democratic leaders that they’ve abandoned any serious effort to make even the worst guns any less available. While Democrats used to argue for tougher restrictions on the most deadly guns, the Republican response has always been to “enforce the laws we’ve already got.” But that quote on Tuesday was from President Obama. His position? “What I’m trying to do is to get a broader conversation about how do we reduce the violence generally.” I’d expect such a milquetoast response from Governor Romney.
As for the assault weapons ban that both parties let expire, the President bravely endorsed “seeing if we can get an assault weapons ban introduced.” (Obama to NRA – “Nothing to fear here.”) And Obama led his entire answer on gun control with Republican rhetoric about the Second Amendment and hunting and sportsmen rather than challenging the pro-gun extremism that tolerates bloody massacres in American towns. It was a battle between the right and the right; the left was not in the building.
Obama stood up for Democratic values in a couple of places, most notably on pay equity and contraceptive coverage for women. And he defended the Affordable Healthcare Act in the first debate, but just because Republicans want to repeal it doesn’t make it a liberal policy. It’s nearly identical to the one Romney himself enacted in Massachusetts. (Obama never floated a single player plan, nor even a public option.)
Liberals watching these debates are resigned to crossing their fingers the president will defend the center-right policies that have marked his first term against the farther-right alternatives of today’s Republicans.
This doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter who wins. A Republican victory would move the Supreme Court even further to the right, making it the most conservative in history. That alone is enough reason for Democrats to ensure Obama wins a second term. But a Democratic White House should be an opportunity to apply progressive alternatives to the current corporate- and military-centered landscape, not just a waiting period before Republicans regain control and drive the country further right again.
The Democrats under Obama have been occupying the center and center-right not just in the campaign but throughout Obama’s presidency. He may well win a second term in November, but judging from the terms of debate Obama has imposed on himself, the right is doing just fine either way.