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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.'"

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