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President Obama went up against Gov. Mitt Romney last night in a town-hall-style debate. After a lackluster performance during the first debate two weeks ago, the president had something to prove. By nearly all accounts, he came across much tougher and more engaged. He challenged his rival for the White House on differences of policy and plans for the nation’s future. The two men sparred over energy and economic policy, tax cuts and immigration. And they squared off over the best path to improve U.S. competitiveness and create jobs. Diane and her guests talk about what Americans learned from the candidates and whether it will make a difference in November.
- Ron Elving Washington editor for NPR.
- Michael Hirsh chief correspondent at National Journal magazine and author of "At War with Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering its Chance to Build a Better World."
- Linda Killian journalist, senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center and author of "The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents."
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Last night, President Obama and Gov. Romney debated each other for a second time. Here are some of the headlines we're seeing in the media this morning: Obama-Romney spar in contentious second debate, the gloves came off, fight night on Long Island. We talk about what President Obama and Gov. Romney revealed about their policy differences and themselves.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me for post-debate analysis and what it could mean in November: Michael Hirsh of National Journal magazine, Linda Killian, a journalist and Wilson Center scholar, and Ron Elving of NPR. I certainly want to hear your thoughts, whether you thought one person came across better than another, what you thought the points one made were, whether you believe that the debate could make a difference in the election.
MS. DIANE REHMGive us a call, 800-433-850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning, everybody. Thanks for being here.
MR. MICHAEL HIRSHGood morning, Diane.
MR. RON ELVINGGood morning, Diane.
MS. LINDA KILLIANThanks for having us.
REHMMichael, whatever else you thought of it, certainly the headlines make it sound as though it was a boxing match rather than a presidential debate. What was different about last night's debate compared with the first one?
HIRSHWell, your analogy is spot on. I mean, I had that precise impression watching these two men on the stage last night, almost as if it were a boxing ring -- Romney playing the stalker, the sort of Rocky Marciano, Obama, slipping and ducking. There was a sense at times of Romney invading Obama's physical space in an almost threatening way, which was a little bit unnerving when you're talking about, you know, the sitting president of the United States.
HIRSHSo completely different from the first time around where Obama seemed all but asleep behind his lectern. And Romney was pretty much the Romney we saw in terms of the points he presented, but where Obama was a completely different debater, counterpunching, very aggressive and, I think, you know, a lot more effective.
REHMRon Elving, was the damage done in the first debate reversed in last night's debate?
ELVINGThe energy was reversed. I'm not sure the damage was eradicated. The question is to what degree was it mitigated. The president not only was adjudged the loser of that Oct. 3 debate, but something else happened. A lot of other good news that was happening for his campaign -- huge fundraising months, lower jobs numbers, higher consumer confidence numbers, better numbers in the housing market -- was obscured.
ELVINGA lot of that news got obscured over the next two weeks by our coverage of that first debate and how it seemed to have changed the dynamic. And it wasn't just that people thought the president hadn't done a good job. It was that people were impressed positively with Mitt Romney in a way they were not at the convention, in a way that they had not been in the Republican primaries, and I'm talking here about swing voters.
ELVINGAnd these people had suddenly rallied to the idea that Mitt Romney might be president and that he might be a pretty good president. And some sort of membrane seemed to have been broken.
ELVINGAnd that was a continuing phenomenon because the polls were not just overnight and anticipating. The polls continued to gain strength in Romney's favor. Now, we're talking about margins here, a few points, a few points. But that's what kind of election it is. And for Obama to be up three or four points in the swing states and then down three or four points in the swing states has to be attributed to that change of dynamic on Oct. 3.
REHMLinda Killian, you've just written a book titled "The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents." Talk about those swing voters and how they might have seen what happened last night.
KILLIANYes. Well, this debate obviously was designed for them. The audience asking the questions were self-identified, swing, independent, undecided voters, but I didn't think either Mr. Romney or President Obama did a particularly good job of talking about what these kind of voters want to hear. I don't think they made the sale.
KILLIANI think Ron is right that Mitt Romney for the first time in the first debate started to make himself palatable as a potential president. But I think this debate last night pretty much represents exactly what independent swing voters hate about the political process right now.
KILLIANThe heat, the name calling, the combativeness, the polarized state of our politics, and what they want are real answers. What they want are specifics, what they're waiting for. They're disappointed in Barack Obama. Many of them voted for Barack Obama last time. But Mitt Romney hasn't made the sale. And I think Mitt Romney's combative nature last night, you know, there was an audible gasp in the audience when Romney said to Obama, you'll get your chance in a minute, I'm still speaking.
KILLIANYou know, and the way he kind of stalked the stage was disrespectful. And I think it turns off those kind of voters, especially women. I call them Starbucks moms in the book, suburban voters key to whoever in Ohio, in Colorado and Virginia, to whoever is going to win this election.
REHMI must say I want to give a real shout out to Candy Crowley. I thought she did a fabulous job of trying to keep order, making sure people's toes stayed where they ought to be. But, Michael, you had some different thoughts about how well or how well each of those two candidates did last night.
HIRSHYeah. Look, it was a very tough format for Obama in that it was a town hall. Traditionally, it's difficult, for all the reasons Linda was suggesting, to attack and go negative in those kinds of formats. You're supposed to be addressing your questioners. These undecided voters had some very specific questions about their welfare over the next four years. In several cases, neither Obama nor Romney directly addressed them.
HIRSHSo there was a lot of opportunity for turning off these very voters who were at the heart of this format. And I think it's -- we're going to have to wait to see what the polling says, but it's possible that either both men did that, particularly Romney.
HIRSHBut I do think that, you know, what you saw was President Obama who was sufficiently alarmed by the extraordinary reaction to the first debate, as Ron was describing it, where almost in a way that happened with the Romney campaign when they got distracted by all these questions about Bain Capital and the stakes that he had made on his foreign policy tour -- foreign affairs tour and so forth. In the same way, over the previous 10 days, all of the questions have been focused on Obama's botched first debate. So he did lay that to rest.
REHMAll right. So did we learn anything about the president's views on the economy and on health care, Ron Elving?
ELVINGThe president did not say much about what he plans to do differently with respect to the economy in the next four years. And I think that's one of the answers that Linda's undecided voters that she talked about are looking for. That -- they really want to know more about why they should think the economy is doing better. The president got caught up once again in defending his record over the last four years. He and his surrogates have been doing this now for quite some time.
ELVINGAnd as I said, even though the numbers are improving, people's feelings about the economy are not. So that's a loser for him if he dwells too much in the past. He needs to talk about how tomorrow might be brighter.
REHMDid we learn anything new about specifics of Gov. Romney's plans for the nation if he were to win the presidency, Linda?
KILLIANWell, I thought there was a remarkable amount of both men not directly answering questions they were asked, both by the audience and when Candy Crowley tried to do follow up. You're right. I thought she did a great job. And so, you know, Mitt Romney on his website, what he said about his tax policy is one thing -- let's get rid of the capital gains tax. But last night, he kind of obfuscated that.
KILLIANHe did not directly address, you know, all he has said famously about how he would reduce the debt, the deficit is cut funding for public broadcasting, which would fund the government for one hour. It's not a serious proposal. His tax plan doesn't add up. So I think he danced around specifics. But, again, Barack Obama hasn't really offered deficit specifics either.
KILLIANAnd we've got -- you know, to me, it feels like this campaign is almost taking place in a parallel universe because the day after the election, we're going to have the lame duck Congress come back. And we have a huge -- this huge fiscal cliff -- tax cuts expiring, spending -- and they didn't talk about that last night.
REHMBefore we go any further, we keep hearing that independent voters are the ones who are going to decide this election, that they're going to make a big difference in numbers. Tell us about the independent voters, who they are, what they think, where they are.
KILLIANOK. Well, this obviously is my wheelhouse, the swing vote. I talk about four states: Colorado, Ohio, Virginia, New Hampshire, all incredibly important along with Florida right now, all very much in play. And I talked about the four groups, and you saw both Mr. Romney and President Obama talking to them directly last night, these four key swing groups. You have the suburban voters, Starbucks moms and dads, women incredibly important. More than 50 percent of the country lives in suburbs.
KILLIANNo one will win without carrying a big chunk of the suburban vote. It was huge for Barack Obama four years ago. America first Democrats, conservative male Democrats, what we used to call Reagan Democrats, incredibly important in Ohio. This is why you heard Barack Obama really pushing the auto bailout, outsourcing jobs, et cetera. Facebook generation, young voters, you heard questions from young voters, registered as independents in a higher percentage than any other age group, surprisingly competitive.
KILLIANAnd then, of course, what I call NPR Republicans, moderate -- socially moderate, fiscally conservative Republicans, they probably will vote for Mitt Romney as their kind of candidate.
HIRSHYeah. I think that Linda hits on a really critical point here, which is that this remaining body of undecided voters are not confused people. They are genuinely curious about what either these two guys is going to do if he becomes president over the next four years. Obama has not laid out his plans. Romney...
REHMBut how can he, frankly, in terms of laying out specific plans when, of course, he didn't know what the Congress is going to be and how that makeup is going to come out in the election. We know we have to get out now briefly. Short break. And when we come back, we'll talk more and take your calls.
REHMWelcome back. And, of course, we're talking about last night's debate, which ran overtime. Actually, I think it went about an hour and 45 minutes, close to it, as opposed to an hour and a half. Here in the studio to talk about the ins and outs and what did not happen during that debate: Ron Elving of NPR, Linda Killian. She's a journalist, senior scholar at the Wilson Center and author of a new book titled, "The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents," and Michael Hirsh, chief correspondent for National Journal magazine.
REHMHere's our first email, which touches on exactly what we're talking about before the break. It's from David in Grand Rapids, Mich., who says, "I was disappointed the president did not lay out his plans for the next four years. But Mr. Romney's five-point plan still doesn't make any sense to me." Ron.
ELVINGBoth of these men, obviously, have to confront the reality of a recalcitrant Congress, which we don't really know the makeup of. We don't know if the Senate will be Republican or Democratic. The House looks like it'll be Republican, but by how much makes a difference. We don't know what sort of attitude and mood they're going to be in after this election, or what other events might intrude.
ELVINGNow, Mitt Romney has used that to say, I can't tell you I'm going to pay for my $5 trillion tax cut because, well, we'll have to get Congress back here and work it out with them. That's true. He does have to get Congress back and work it out with them. But what would he propose to Congress on day one? What would he say, this is the way to pay for this tax. And what would President Obama, in his second term, say to Congress?
ELVINGWhat would be his, essentially, opening bid? Would he say, let's sit down and reason together? Let's make some big sacrifices. I'm willing to give up things that mean a lot to me. You guys are going to have to give a little ground on taxes. Is that his plan? We've had hints of that, but we don't really know what he plans to say.
REHMYou know, it's interesting, over the last few months, I've heard Gov. Romney say on a number of occasions, this is what I'm going to do on my first day in office. I'm going to get rid of Obamacare, which the president has now accepted as a term. Last night, he said something about China and their floating rate. He's talked about money for the corporation. Lots of things he's going to do on his first day. He's going to be a busy man. Michael.
HIRSHYeah. Well, that's exactly what Obama said in one of his rare good cracks in the first debate when, you know, Romney was making this dramatic move to the middle on that Oct. 3 debate. And, you know, Obama said, well, he's got an awful lot to do. He's both going to talk to the Democrats, he's saying, as he did in Massachusetts, but he's also going to repeal Obamacare. I don't know how he's going to get that done at the same time.
HIRSHSo, yes, it's a lot of political rhetoric. But the critical point here on substance is we really do not know across the board what either Obama or Romney would do. Romney has not explained really how he's going to get those tax cuts accomplished and cut the deficit. Every responsible economist says it's not doable mathematically. He hasn't said what he's going to do on immigration beyond naming China a currency manipulator. He hasn't really said what he's specifically going to do on most foreign policy issues.
HIRSHSo he hasn't even said what he's going to do in terms of replacing Dodd-Frank and financial regulation, even though he's supposedly a financial maven, you know, at Bain Capital. So that's the problem with Romney. There's a lot of promises with a giant hole in the middle of them. And at the same time, Obama hasn't been specific.
REHMOne more question, then we'll go to the phones. This is from Mike in Indianapolis, who says, "I thought both candidates performed well, but I thought the president did a great job attacking Romney on women's issues." What about that, Linda?
KILLIANWell, the women's vote is huge. And on issues like abortion, birth control, fair pay, you would -- you could argue that the Republicans are weak on those sort of issues, on issues that appeal to a majority of women.
REHMWhat about that notebook that Gov. Romney kept talking about?
ELVINGWomen in binders.
HIRSHWomen in binders.
ELVINGYeah, women in binders.
ELVINGIt's already a website.
KILLIANYou know, I think -- I personally think this is a media creation, and I don't think swing voters care about that little remark.
REHMAwful lot of tweets about it.
KILLIANYou know -- yeah. But that's a media thing, you know?
REHMRight here is a tweet from a woman, who says, "I'm still offended by all of the implications of the binders-full-of-women comment."
ELVINGWell, one thing you can say is that the kind of tropes that come out of these debates are largely chosen by partisans and then sort of get into the media and get to be a portrayal of a spontaneous combustion sort of thing, whereas, in fact, they're coming from people whose job it is to do that. In this case, it's an unfortunate choice of phrase.
ELVINGBut it has this implication that, when he wanted to find some women for his administration there in Massachusetts as governor, he couldn't go back to his business because in his business, he had had very few women and, I believe, no women partners at Bain at the time -- Bain Capital. So he didn't have a lot of associates that he could bring in. So he said, let's find some women. And the way he found women was by having them bring him women in binders. That is to say resumes.
ELVINGHe couldn't bring them actual women that he could put in the administration that he knew because he didn't know women like that. That hadn't been the kind of career he had had.
KILLIANIt's just an illustration of his awkwardness. You know, it's another illustration of his...
REHMWell, I would take a little issue with you on that. If he had known a lot of women professionally, wouldn't he have been able to say, oh, this is perfect for Jane.
REHMOr this would be a wonderful position in which to put Barbara. I mean, it does make you wonder if he -- if I didn't know any men whatsoever, if I didn't know, you know, it makes you wonder. Let's open the phones now, 800-433-8850, to Maria in Camp Hill, Pa. Good morning to you.
MARIAGood morning. I'm a Latina, and I was very upset with Romney's explanation of what self-deportation is. Self-deportation is a program where the undocumented would not be able to find work. They could not find a place to live, and their children would not be allowed to go to school like the program in Alabama. And those things together create misery, and these people wind up having to leave because they can't feed their families.
MARIAAnd to make it sound like it's just a benign program and you simply go back to whatever country that you choose to go back to is like saying a concentration camp was a form of the myriad.
REHMWhat do you think, Linda Killian?
KILLIANWell, I think what's interesting is the Hispanic vote is so incredibly important, and it is growing so significantly in states like New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona. And it is going to be a real -- if they turn out, they're kind of -- you can kind of compare them to young voters because they're significant statistically, but they don't turn out in the percentages that, say, African-American voters do.
KILLIANSo if they do turn out and if they become a committed Democratic-voting bloc, which now, I think, they're not, I think they will vote Democratic this time. But that doesn't mean they're locked in forever. They are an incredibly important voting bloc.
REHMWhat about that phrase, self-deportation, Ron?
ELVINGIt's an interesting attempt to finesse a difficult situation in a primary debate. That's where it came from. That's where Mitt Romney started talking about self-deportation because as he did again last night, he wanted to say, I'm not going to round people up. We're talking 12 million people. We're not -- there's not enough buses. We can't go around to get all these people rounded up.
ELVINGAnd this was in the context of who can be toughest on illegal immigration debate in the Republican primaries. And you had some people being very tough and saying some things that were offensive to a lot of Hispanic Americans. And in the midst of that, Mitt Romney did not want to be offensive, and he did not want to call for something that sounded like rounding people up. So he used this phrase, self-deportation.
ELVINGIf circumstances change and if the law gets a little tougher and if people can't find the life here that they thought they were going to find, they might take themselves back to, as he said last night, various, different countries.
HIRSHYou know -- I mean, I think that Obama came out ahead on that issue for this critical voter bloc, and it's an issue that he does have some weaknesses on because, you know, he has not dealt with immigration in a broad-based way. But because Romney effectively ran to the right of his GOP primary challengers and was so tough on this issue, he really comes out behind. And I thought Obama did a very effective job of pointing up the inconsistencies in Romney's position.
REHMThanks for calling, Maria. To Taylor, who's in San Antonio, Texas, one of those prior to last night, apparently, undecided. Good morning to you.
TAYLORGood morning, Diane. I want to let you know I don't think there's a lot of journalists that I truly trust to give the news these days. You're wonderful.
TAYLORI truly appreciate you. You know, I wanted to ask your panel today. You know, I have a lot of concerns with the way the president has handled of international situations that have arisen over the course of -- even the last year, you know, the day after Osama bin Laden, without us being able to exploit any of that intel, him getting on national TV and talked about everything down to the dog's name.
TAYLORYou know, I thought, going into this presidential election, I was going to be for anybody but Obama. But I'm starting to get more and more concerns on the Romney side because I just can't track a lot of what he's saying when he says things like his five-point plan with no numbers. And I even -- you know, my father happens to have been with the president at Harvard. My father is a Harvard law grad, as well as a '76 grad for the academy.
TAYLORAnd my father can't even tell me where the numbers from Romney are coming from. And if there's anybody who would support Romney at this point, it will be my father. I wanted to ask your panel, though, how they felt about when the president was approached about the situation in Libya, the, you know, the murders or the American murders that took place there, he immediately went to this comment about, well, I said the word terror in the Rose Garden.
TAYLORHe didn't put it in context. Yeah, he said the word terror, but for 14 days, he dodged around it. And he said, bad intel, bad intel, bad intel. But, you know, we look back on it now, and it's -- there weren't writers. There was armed men with guns. There wasn't a protest. It was armed men.
REHMSo that whole issue came up again and again.
REHMAnd I must say Candy Crowley did nail it when she said that the president had, indeed, used that word in the Rose Garden the very day after the event.
HIRSHYeah. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, the president actually dodged the bullet on that one, if you'll pardon the expression, in that Romney came off very badly. It was his worst moment because what the president said the day after in the Rose Garden was that Americans would not quail before acts of terror. He didn't specifically call this an act of terror. And yet Romney kind of missed that point because, indeed, the administration was very fuzzy for the 14 days after the Sept. 11 killing of Amb. Chris Stevens and three others.
REHMBut the implication was deliberately fuzzy, Michael.
HIRSHRight. And it hasn't been clear why they played up this anti-Muslim video and the effects that that was having on demonstrations, which were occurring across that part of the world, versus this being a planned al-Qaida attack which they had intelligence on. So I think that Obama came out definitely ahead on that one.
REHMMichael Hirsh of National Journal. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Where do you come out on this, Ron Elving?
ELVINGInsofar as President Obama was able to dodge on this one and finesse it, he's quite lucky because this is an issue where it might not be an enormous foreign policy debacle. It is a small and painful one, and it comes at a terrible time. And it is a gateway, if you will, for the Republicans to then attack a much more broad-based sense of the president's policy throughout the Middle East with respect to the Arab Spring, with respect to our relationship with Israel, all of which is always problematic and always will be problematic for any president.
ELVINGBut most of the time, it is in a kind of steady state of turmoil, and most Americans don't pay attention. Suddenly, here's a reason for Americans to pay attention, to get angry, to say, hey, what's going on there? Did the administration make a mess of this? Did they know what was going on? And that gateway has been exploited.
REHMSo Taylor has a right to be concerned. Good justification. At the same time, I must say you heard Secretary of State Clinton say yesterday, I am responsible. And yet you heard President Obama say last night, I am the commander in chief, and it was my responsibility.
KILLIANYeah. Secretary Clinton was very mature, gracious, handled it beautifully. President Obama did not answer the question last night about who -- remember, the question was, who denied increased security? That was the question from the audience. He didn't answer that question. But he handled it masterfully when he -- you know, Obama got -- Romney got his facts wrong, and that was -- that chance...
REHMWell, who does deny or allow the money that was needed for security? There was $30 million cut.
HIRSHYeah. It was a very legitimate question. The president did not answer directly. Romney botched the opportunity going there.
REHMWhat could he have said? What should he have said?
HIRSHHe -- the only thing that he could have said was that we failed to respond to those requests, which came from the State Department's head of regional security, as he testified last week at a congressional hearing, that they were worried about security and wanted more. And it was never clear who specifically denied it...
HIRSH...but he is the commander in chief.
HIRSHAnd I just should add, the reason that Secretary Clinton had to step up and say that was because Joe Biden, the vice president, made a mistake at his debate in saying that he had...
REHMWe didn't know.
HIRSHWe didn't know about these reports.
REHMBut that's my question. Do we know who knew? That's the issue.
ELVINGThe likelihood here is that someone in the State Department decided that at least the security, extra security that was being offered at that moment was, for some reason, are either too expensive or problematic. Now let's remember that the kind of security that we're talking about at this juncture may or may not be Marines. They may have Marines available. They may not. The kind of security that was being offered might also have been these private contractors who have been highly problematic in and of themselves.
ELVINGAnd Chris Stevens, our late ambassador, was the kind of person who didn't like to overly rely on a lot of guns as he moved around, especially in places like Benghazi.
REHMAnd did the State Department and the White House both know that Chris Stevens was moving from Tripoli to Benghazi?
KILLIANWe don't know that yet.
REHMI mean, so there really are a lot of questions about this.
ELVINGThe president could say -- and, to some degree, was implying, but he did not explicitly say last night -- he could say this was not a decision how much to arm up the consulate in Benghazi when Chris Stevens was going to be there. This was not a decision that rose to the White House. We didn't sit around and talk about this in the Oval Office. But even though it was made in another building, made at another level, the responsibility for that decision does rise to the White House, does rise to the Oval Office. And that's why I'm saying ultimately the buck stops here.
KILLIANBut it was a very good moment for the president in the debate when he said, you know, the suggestion that anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we've lost four of our own. That was a very good, strong moment for the president.
REHMLinda Killian, she's journalist, senior scholar at the Wilson Center and author of "The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents." We're going to take just a short break here. When we come back, more of your email, your phone calls, your tweets and your postings on Facebook.
REHMAnd we're back, this time with a caller in Dover, N.H. Good morning, Peter. Thanks for joining us.
PETERGood morning, Diane. This whole situation with the debates is one which I think is kind of clouding people's judgment. It is interesting to see whether people are, you know, good debaters or not. But that's not really the most important characteristic a president brings to office. The most important attribute a president has to have is good judgment because he or she is going to be making enormous numbers of decisions and important decisions.
PETERAnd so the thing people really ought to decide their vote on is whether they -- the person that they are selecting is the person with the best judgment. And so let's just consider a couple of the issues that Romney and Obama have differed on. Romney said, with regard of the auto industry crisis, let it go bankrupt. Well, Barack Obama said, let's save the automobile industry. Romney said, with regard to the foreclosure crisis, let it run its course, it -- and the market will solve the problem.
PETERAnd in addition with -- for example, a lesser issue but an important one nevertheless with Osama bin Laden, we shouldn't spend billions of dollars getting Osama bin Laden. But Barack Obama said, we're going to get him, and we got him.
REHMWhat about that, Ron Elving?
ELVINGThis question about the auto bailout, I think, is an interesting one. I suspect the Republican polling has been showing Mitt Romney that this is hurting him -- one expects in Michigan. That's a state that they had hoped to play in but haven't been playing in. Ohio, that was really the important one. If this election reduces to one state, it's Ohio. Notice how many days of this month each candidate had been in Ohio.
ELVINGIt's pretty more than half the days of the month. And they're going to continue that because it comes down to Ohio, and this is hurting him. And so he wanted to be able to come out and say, there's really no difference between us on the auto bailout. I wanted it to go bankrupt in a private sector way, and the president took a bankrupt through a government bailout. Well, the difference is there wasn't private money poised to step in and take over those car companies if they went bankrupt.
ELVINGThey were going to be broken up. There was no one poised to give that kind of funding on the private sector side, at least that we know about or so the auto companies tell us. And the president, on the other hand, took the risk of saying, here's another government bailout, good old Uncle Sam, and that cost him politically at the time, but in the long run, you have the results you have.
REHMAll right. To Frederick, Md. Good morning, Karen. You're on the air.
KARENHi. Good morning. I would just like to make a couple of comments. I am a Starbucks mom. I'm a registered independent. I was extremely disheartened and at times very uncomfortable watching the debate last night. I feel that in my circle, I have a growing number of friends, family, co-workers who are identifying themselves as independents. And I feel that to the consensus is, yet again, you know, that we are going to choose between who's going to do the least amount of damage in the next four years.
KARENAnd I think for me, although the polls show, to my knowledge, that the economy is everyone's number one priority and jobs is everyone's number one priority because in the first two debates, neither candidate is able to lay out any sort of substantial plan, and I do understand that there's, you know, future factors that they can't account for.
KARENBut because our most important issue is one that is still so very clouded, I really think that most folks, at least independents, are going to end up falling right back on to the moral and social issues and end up voting based on those things.
KILLIANShe sounds so -- like so many voters I interviewed for the swing vote and just very thoughtful comments that she just made. And just -- this is why it just angers me when people talk about these undecided swing voters as not paying attention and not caring. They think their vote is precious, and they want these candidates to earn their vote. They want to know that these candidates have their back.
KILLIANThe previous caller talked about judgment, and they want assurances that whoever they elect will have the best interest of the country at heart. And I think that is not what either candidate has really convinced these voters of, and I think that's what we just heard from her.
HIRSHYeah, it's exactly right. I mean, that's why I call this the Goldilocks election. It's just lukewarm on both the incumbent and the challenger. There is no sense of passion because, frankly, there shouldn't be because the plans are not there, the details of those plans are not there, and I would not be surprised at all if what this caller said represents what a lot of people feel. We're not getting enough meat, you know, on the economic front, and so we're just going to make our decisions based on social issues.
REHMLet's go to Grand Ledge, Mich. Hi, Christina.
CHRISTINAHi, Diane. Good morning.
CHRISTINAI listen every day, and I really appreciate all that you and your guests do to inform listeners. I was watching the debate last night and sharing feedback and comments with friends on Facebook. And a number of us felt that Gov. Romney came out as quite defensive and, my word, snarky, whereas President Obama, in my opinion and some of theirs, came across as far more assertive but not aggressive as Romney.
CHRISTINAAnd the president seemed to work very hard to remain polite while at the same time commanding control of the facts and not letting Gov. Romney slide especially as you have mentioned before in the show when President Obama strongly called out Romney on misrepresenting his statements in the Rose Garden after the tragic attacks on the State Department officials in Benghazi.
CHRISTINASome of my friends thought that the biggest moment of the debate came from when Candy Crowley said, Governor, he said that, confirming the president's statements. And I'd like to know what the panel thinks about the overall tone each candidate took, how the tone of this debate might affect undecided voters and how the tone might perhaps change the course of the election from the last debate.
KILLIANI think so much of -- it's so classic that she said she was exchanging, you know, thoughts on Facebook. It just goes to show how elections have changed and how we process elections has changed and even in just four years.
REHMSo instead of just screaming at the television, you're texting your best friends or something of that sort.
KILLIANYeah. And tone and the impression that a debate leaves is what lasts with voters, I think. And that is why that's so important.
ELVINGYou know, we used to have this standard kind of issue, a story that we would do the day after a debate, where we go to a debate-watching party. And people still have debate-watching parties.
ELVINGBut they used to be more important. They used to be something that we could regularly find and take a microphone to and talk to people at a debate-watching party. It's gotten harder. I believe more and more people are watching it in the way that Linda just described. They're at a party, as it were, but they're sitting at their computer by themselves.
ELVINGIt's a little bit different from the dynamic of people -- 20, 30, 10, 15 -- getting together in a lounge of a college dorm or in somebody's living room to watch the debate together.
REHMTo Pittsburgh, Pa. Good morning, Wendy.
WENDYGood morning, Diane. Thank you so much for taking my call.
WENDYI'd be interested to talk to the college student yesterday who asked the presidential candidates what they would do for him to help him find a job. Then, later on, Mr. Romney said that he wanted to give a visa or a green card to all people with a diploma in foreign countries. Of course, they don't have as much debt as we do because their tuition payments aren't as high. So they're going to be willing to get jobs a lot less than we are. Nobody really has talked about that. I would be very curious as to what Mr. Epstein, that college student thought about that.
HIRSHYeah. Neither candidate did a good job of answering that first question from the college student. And I was very struck that Romney, again, made a dramatic move to the middle that contrasted with the positions he had taken during the primary campaign when he embraced Paul Ryan as his running mate because Ryan's budget, of course, would slash almost all education funding and not just Pell grants. And Romney, only recently, came out and said, well, I kind of like Pell grants.
HIRSHAnd so, again, you have this question -- not just that the direct issue is not being addressed by the candidates -- that is what does a young, just-graduated college student going to do? How is he going to, you know, where is he going to find a job -- but no real specifics on which Mitt Romney are we going to get in the end. Are we going to get the, you know, the Massachusetts governor? Or are we going to get the Paul Ryan Republican?
ELVINGYeah. Jobs-4-Jeremy, I think, is another new website this morning. This is the final part of Mr. Romney's answer. 2014, when you come out in 2014, I presume I'm going to be president. I'm going to make sure you get a job. And then he chuckled. Then he said, thanks, Jeremy. Yeah, you bet. So I don't know if Jeremy has already started thinking about which office he'd like to occupy there.
REHMRon Elving, he's Washington editor for NPR. Linda Killian is a journalist, author and scholar at the Wilson Center. Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent at National Journal magazine. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Lots of folks felt that the last moments of the debate, I gather, Gov. Romney had the penultimate word and the president had the last word. Let's hear that clip.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMAI believe Gov. Romney is a good man, loves his family, cares about his faith, but I also believe that when he said behind closed doors that 47 percent of the country considered themselves victims, who refused personal responsibility, think about who he was talking about: folks on Social Security who've worked all their lives, veterans who've sacrificed for this country, students who are out there trying to hopefully advance their own dreams but also this country's dreams.
REHMSo he got that 47 percent in.
ELVINGThat's right, the shiv he didn't get to use in first debate or chose not to. He got the moment to use it because Mitt Romney had already made a reference to being for 100 percent of the people in the country, which might have sort of begged the question of, well, yeah, sure. Why would you suddenly use a percentage in that way? That's the reason. And, of course, we have had heard Mitt Romney go on Fox News and say, look, I was completely wrong. That wasn't just a poor choice of words.
ELVINGI was completely wrong to talk about 47 percent of the people being non-taxpayers who are just interested in the benefits from the government and that I was not concerned about those people, I was concerned about the productive half of the country. And, yes, it was completely wrong. And a lot of people have wondered why the president didn't go after it in the first debate. He found the spot where he could get away with it, going after it and not getting a response from the governor.
HIRSHIt was a masterful closing. Of course, this came in response to a question about what is most misunderstood about you. And it's clear this was foremost on Romney's mind, the idea that he was the 47-percent man. And the president, in a situation where there could be no rebuttal because it was the final question, really slanted home. And I think, you know, he did a very eloquent job of raising this central question about Mitt Romney. Is he the 40 percent -- 47 percent Mitt Romney? Or is he the former moderate Massachusetts governor, who, in fact, does feel for the middle class?
KILLIANI would like to bring up something in that closed-door meeting in which Romney made that 47 percent remark. I would like to encourage your listeners to go on the Web and watch the uncut raw video because I think Mitt Romney says a lot of other very interesting things that the media has not focused on because of the 47 percent. He talks about how specifics in this campaign don't matter. And don't worry about specifics, don't worry about details. People aren't paying attention to details.
KILLIANHe also talks about how all that really matters is the advertising in the swing states. And we are on pace for both campaigns and their supporters to spend $1 billion dollars in advertising...
KILLIAN...in just swing states and maybe about nine swing states. And still the American people feel this campaign is failing. I mean, that's how sort of broken the system is, that we can spend that kind of money and not get the specifics that these voters do really want.
KILLIANAnd both -- and they just are afraid to talk specifics. They both are. They're afraid it will box them in.
REHMWell, in a sense, I mean, we've heard Gov. Romney say, I'll do away with Planned Parenthood. I'll do away -- I'll make sure that China -- China's currency is no longer -- be accepted currency here. I'll do away with Obamacare. Those are specifics that people do hear because not only has the media portrayed those, Gov. Romney himself had those things again and again.
ELVINGThere are certain words, there are certain ideas that break through, certain notions that break through in the midst of all this cacophony and all these static and these billions of dollars worth of ads that are largely made to affect our emotions. Yet there are some things that do break through, and sometimes they are chosen by the people themselves. And the social media make it more possible for this to resonate, for example, the Big Bird thing that came out of the first debate. It was meant to be a toss-off line.
ELVINGIt was meant to be sort of a joke. But it took on a life of its own. And there will be other things out of this debate, and probably out of the third debate, to take on a life of their own. And those are the things that matter because they are the things that were popularly chosen as the meaningful symbols of the choice.
HIRSHAnd the question is, you know, which specifics are we going to get? Is it going to be the Romney who opposed funding for Planned Parenthood, you know, who supports a law that allows businesses to cut off, you know, contraception, health care support? Or is it going to be the Romney that we heard last night, saying he completely supports, you know, contraception for women? Again, you don't know which one you're going to get. I think that's the central question hanging over him.
REHMAnd final caller from Peoria, Ill. Hi there, Ellie. You're on the air.
ELLIEYes, hi. I'm not Republican, nor Democrat, and I am pro-choice and pro-gay marriage. But I have to say, at this time, America looks like a person who was hit by a semi-truck with a failure -- a heart failure and broken legs and arms. And Obama is busy fixing arms and legs. And we need somebody who can get into the major issues, like economy, and save this country. Obama is a good lawyer, is a good person, is a good father and is a good husband. That's all good, but he is just not a good leader.
ELLIEWe need somebody who can walk through differences and bring people together to agree upon the best decision for this country. And one last thing is, once upon time, America was a land where highly advanced, educated people from across the world would come to United States to work here and to find opportunities to excel. It's still going to be the other way around where we have highly educated students, young people, who don't have job in this country, and they're all going to migrate to China and other countries that...
REHMAll right. I'm afraid we're just about out of time. Ellie, I'm glad you called, and you have had the last word. I want to thank our guests this morning: Linda Killian, she's author of a new book called "The Swing Vote," Ron Elving, Washington editor for NPR, and Michael Hirsh, chief correspondent at National Journal. And thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Denise Couture, Susan Nabors, Rebecca Kaufman, Lisa Dunn and Megan Merritt. The engineer is Toby Schreiner. Natalie Yuravlivker answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is email@example.com, and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program is a production of WAMU 88.5 from American University in Washington, D.C. This is NPR.
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