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

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video VOA EXCLUSIVE: US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs UN countermeasure More

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants 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.
Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountaini
X
July 02, 2015 4:10 AM
Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs