News / USA

Debate Speak: A Big Night for Policy Wonks and Big Bird Fans

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama shake hands after the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, in Colorado, Oct. 3, 2012.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama shake hands after the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, in Colorado, Oct. 3, 2012.
Avi Arditti
During the presidential debate Wednesday night, President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney used terms that might have been easily understood -- but only by political junkies.  

For Tom Hollihan, a professor of communications at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, who specializes in presidential debates, the most noteworthy thing was that the debate was "very respectful" and focused primarily on the issues.

But Hollihan also noticed something that might not have been very helpful to Americans still trying to decide who to vote for on November 6.

"Some of the language was very sophisticated and probably presumed an intimate knowledge of public policy that maybe failed to communicate with voters who don't follow political issues or discussions very closely," he said. "And in that those tend to be the folks who are the late deciders in a political campaign, it may have suggested that a lot of the conversation went over the heads of the undecided voters."

For example, the candidates used terms like "Simpson-Bowles" and "Dodd-Frank," not necessarily widely understood by the public.

"Simpson-Bowles was a panel that was put together to work on bipartisan solutions on debt reduction, and they produced a report that in the end the partisans in both the Republican and the Democratic party were unwilling to support," explained Hollihan. "And so it languished, it never got a second look. Dodd-Frank was a whole series of legislative reforms to more closely regulate the financial sector."

Another term that cropped up during the debate was "trickle-down government," used by Mitt Romney.
 
"The president has a view very similar to the view he had when he ran four years ago, that a bigger government spending more, taxing more, regulating more -- if you will, trickle-down government -- would work," Romney said. "That's not the right answer for America."

The term "trickle down" is generally associated with Republicans -- but more precisely, with criticism of Republican policies. The Republican candidate's use of that term probably made a lot of Americans think back to the criticisms of former President Ronald Reagan's administration in the 1980s.

Hollihan believes that may been the point: to turn the phrase around into a criticism of the Democratic policies of Obama.  

"Trickle-down government is literally an attempt to counter a term that the Democrats have been using since the presidency of Ronald Reagan," said Hollihan. "Which is that Republican economic theories of tax breaks for the wealthy elite, the people Romney refers to as 'job creators,' will eventually trickle down and create economic growth, but will raise the income levels of all Americans."

And in that moment, Romney seemed to be giving the term a new meaning.

"I think he's trying to capture an element of the phrase that Democrats have had success using and argue that trickle-down government presumes that government, through regulation, can redistribute wealth and can move the resources down from the wealthy to the poorer Americans, as opposed to raising all income levels," said Hollihan.

Three other terms used during the debate also have political backstories: "revenue," "entitlements" and "corporate welfare."

Moderator and journalist Jim Lehrer asked the candidates about the issue of revenue.

JIM LEHRER: "Now, about the idea that in order to reduce the deficit there has to be revenue in addition to cuts."

BARACK OBAMA: "There has to be revenue in addition to cuts. Now, Governor Romney has ruled out revenue. He’s ruled out revenue.

JIM LEHRER: "Is that --

MITT ROMNEY: "Absolutely. Look, the revenue I get is by more people working, getting higher pay, paying more taxes. That's how we get growth and how we balance the budget. But the idea of taxing people more, putting more people out of work, you’ll never get there. You never balance the budget by raising taxes. Spain -- Spain spends 42 percent of their total economy on government. We’re now spending 42 percent of our economy on government. I don't want to go down the path of Spain. I want to go down the path of growth that puts Americans to work with more money coming in because they're working."

JIM LEHRER: "But, Mr. President, you’re saying in order to get the job done, it’s got to be balanced."

BARACK OBAMA: "If we’re serious, we’ve got to take a balanced, responsible approach. And by the way, this is not just when it comes to individual taxes. Let’s talk about corporate taxes. Now, I’ve identified areas where we can right away make a change that I believe would actually help the economy. The oil industry gets $4 billion a year in corporate welfare. Basically, they get deductions that those small businesses that Governor Romney refers to, they don't get. Now, does anybody think that Exxon Mobil needs some extra money when they're making money every time you go to the pump? Why wouldn’t we want to eliminate that?"

When Obama uses the term 'revenue' he's usually not talking about it the same way as Romney, said Hollihan.

"You know, there are lots of different ways that 'revenue' makes its way into the language. The typical strategy is that tax increases are called 'revenue enhancements," Hollihan continued. "But, of course, revenue can come from overall growth of the economy. So... revenue from Mr. Romney's perspective...he really means growing the economy and producing new wealth and creating new revenues to flow to the government that way. When Mr. Obama talks about revenue, he says, 'Well, you know that's not going to solve our long-term structural economic problems. What we need is a better balance between the income that government takes in and the expenses that government makes."

Which leads us to the term "corporate welfare." Hollihan explains what that means in the context of a larger debate over "entitlements," which now account for a big part of federal spending.

"Entitlements are any form of social safety spending, so food stamps or Medicaid to provide medical assistance to families with extreme medical expenses or needs, retirement systems," he said. These are all embedded in the term 'entitlements.'

"When you talk about corporate welfare, on the other hand, it's a conversation that turns on specific tax breaks or incentives that were created to spark certain types of corporate development or corporate spending. These could be research and development tax credits, these could be tax credits to locate factories in areas where there are high economic needs. This could be tax breaks for the oil industry, for instance, to make it easier for them to search for new places to drill and to protect their losses if they drill dry holes," Hollihan said.

Entitlement programs cover millions of Americans, like the government's Medicare health insurance for older people. But the spending levels for these programs are a source of political friction.

And even the word itself is controversial, said Derek Malone-France, a specialist in political rhetoric at George Washington University.

 "Americans immediately recognize in the background of that term a lot of sort of historical debates, social debates in this country, in the sense that 'entitlement' has a much different kind of implication than a 'right,' he said.

"If you talk about something as a 'right' then you are clearly indicating that you think it's a good thing, that people should have whatever it is that they have a right to, whereas the term 'entitlement' really pushes you more in the direction of a kind of critical stance, that people feel entitled to. It's not that there's any...real technical differentiation on that score, but because of the way American process these terms," Malone-France said.

The candidates engaged in a lot of serious discussion of numbers and details during the first of their three debates this month.

But there were also some lighter moments, particularly when Romney mentioned Big Bird from "Sesame Street" in a discussion about he would cut spending. He said the top thing on his list would be to eliminate Obamacare -- the name that even the president uses for his major health care law.

Romney then said he would stop government payments to PBS -- the Public Broadcasting Service -- which not only carries "Sesame Street" but also moderator Jim Lehrer's nightly news program.

"I’m sorry, Jim, I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS," he said. "I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you, too. But I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it."

That exchange traveled quickly on social media outlets, like Twitter and Facebook, Hollihan said.

"And so I think a lot of liberals said, 'Oh my goodness, it's not just an assault on Democratic programs generally, it's an assault now on Big Bird.'"

You May Like

N. Korea Sentences American to 6 Years Hard Labor

Matthew Miller's brief trial Sunday comes two weeks after 24-year old Miller and two other American detainees appealed to the US government to help free them More

Pakistan Rejects Afghan Criticism of 480-kilometer Border Trench

Military spokesman tells VOA the project is part of administrative and security measures taken to secure the mountainous border with Afghanistan More

Photogallery Typhoon Kalmaegi Makes Landfall in Philippines

Storm makes landfall late Sunday, cutting power and communications lines and forcing people to flee to higher ground More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Scotland Independence Bid Stokes Global Interesti
X
Henry Ridgwell
September 12, 2014 8:35 PM
The people of Scotland are preparing to vote on whether to become independent and break away from the rest of Britain, in a referendum being watched carefully in many other countries. Some see it as a risky experiment; while others hope a successful vote for independence might energize their own separatist demands. Foreign immigrants to Scotland have a front row seat for the vote. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell spoke to some of them in Edinburgh.
Video

Video Scotland Independence Bid Stokes Global Interest

The people of Scotland are preparing to vote on whether to become independent and break away from the rest of Britain, in a referendum being watched carefully in many other countries. Some see it as a risky experiment; while others hope a successful vote for independence might energize their own separatist demands. Foreign immigrants to Scotland have a front row seat for the vote. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell spoke to some of them in Edinburgh.
Video

Video Washington DC Mural Artists Help Beautify City

Like many cities, Washington has a graffiti problem. Buildings and homes, especially in low-income neighborhoods, are often targets of illegal artwork. But as we hear from VOA’s Julie Taboh, officials in the nation's capital have come up with an innovative program that uses the talents of local artists to beautify the city.
Video

Video Palestinians Turn to Rebuilding Gaza

After almost two months of conflict in Gaza, Palestinians are preparing to rebuild the isolated Mediterranean enclave with assistance from abroad. Meanwhile, an international human rights group has found that Israel likely violated international laws of war during some of its attacks on Gaza. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video US Muslim Leaders Condemn Islamic State

Leaders of America's Muslim community are condemning the violent extremism of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. Muslim leaders say militants are exploiting their faith in a failed effort to justify violent extremism. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.
Video

Video Middle Eastern Church Leaders Highlight Christians’ Plight

Patriarchs of Eastern Rite churches came to Washington this week to draw attention to the attacks against Christians in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. VOA’s religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky has more.
Video

Video Americans' Reaction Mixed on Obama Strategy for Islamic State Militants

President Barack Obama’s televised speech on how the United States plans to “degrade and destroy” the group known as the Islamic State reached a prime-time audience of millions. And it came as Americans appear more willing to embrace a bolder, tougher approach to foreign policy. VOA producer Katherine Gypson and reporter Jeff Seldin have this report from Washington.
Video

Video Authorities Allege LA Fashion Industry-Cartel Ties

U.S. officials say they have broken up crime rings that funneled tens of millions of dollars from Mexican drug cartels through fashion businesses in Los Angeles. Mike O'Sullivan reports that authorities announced nine arrests, as 1,000 law enforcement agents fanned out through the city on Wednesday.
Video

Video Bedouin Woman Runs Successful Business in Palestinian City

A Bedouin woman is breaking social taboos by running a successful vacation resort in the Palestinian town of Jericho. Bedouins are a sub-group of Arabs known for their semi-nomadic lifestyle. Zlatica Hoke says the resort in the West Bank's Jordan Valley is a model of success for women in the region.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid