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Ask and you shall receive

John Sandberg | Tuesday, October 9, 2012

I was forced to eat my own words last week, and never have they tasted so good.

My previous column on Sept. 25 (“Frivolities left and right”) detailed the “embarrassing reality” of this presidential campaign, namely the endless competition of sound bites on insignificant issues taking place between two weak candidates. But for 90 minutes last week President Obama and Mitt Romney baked that column and served it to me in a warm slice of humble pie.

Wednesday night a real debate unfolded. Romney was the winner, and his performance undoubtedly did much to tighten a race that appeared to be quickly turning in Obama’s favor.

By all accounts this was a badly-needed game changer for the Romney campaign, making the competition for a seat in the Oval Office a lot more interesting with fewer than 30 days until Election Day.

Put aside winners and losers, though, and the fact is this debate concerned domestic policy issues regarding taxes, health care and the role of the federal government in general, all of which have genuine implications for the country.

Knocks on Romney’s tax returns or Obama’s appearances on daytime TV were noticeably absent, perhaps an implicit understanding between the two candidates that it’s time to put the sardines back in their can and fry bigger fish. Year after year voters plead with candidates to move away from personality-driven beauty contests and focus on the things that matter.

Ask, voters, and you shall receive.

Wednesday night the two candidates for president made their cases why their respective plans for the country were better than the others’, albeit it with inevitable degrees of spin on the opponent’s positions. (They are still politicians, after all.) No one said these issues were the most electrifying, but everyone agrees they matter. The country is better off because of these discussions.

During the debate NBC News’s Chuck Todd tweeted, “Folks wanting a debate on details, they are getting it.” A half-hour into it he added, “That first segment was about as good of a first segment as I can remember in my lifetime of watching these fall debates.” High praise from a guy who’s been covering politics for two decades.

Of course, others in the media were grasping for more – a lot more in some cases.

The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne, another respected voice in American journalism, described the night as little more than “a festival of technocratic mush – dueling studies mashed in with competing statistics.”

Reasons behind Obama’s weaker than expected performance were discussed, including everything from his adjustment to the altitude in Denver to trying too hard not to appear smug.

The liberal blogosphere lit up with conspiracy theories surrounding the handkerchief/supposed cheat sheet Romney placed on his podium.
Jim Lehrer was deemed the worst moderator ever, a measly welcome mat for Mitt Romney’s diamond-soled shoes to stomp all over. (How dare he veer off the sacrosanct path of six neatly divided segments of 15 minutes for each topic?)

And in case anyone was asleep at the time, Romney likes Big Bird but wants to cut his federal funding.

Did I miss anything?

These sidebars might all be more entertaining, but they miss that this debate was about what voters have asked for all along: policy and ideas.
Tomorrow night the vice presidential candidates enter the ring. In one corner, Joe Biden – the current vice president who conspicuously brings soul and red-bloodedness to an administration headed by a calculated but often numbingly professorial president.

In the other corner, Paul Ryan – the policy wonk of a congressman who never seems more comfortable than when talking numbers, with one hand clutching a dense briefing book and the other handling a PowerPoint clicker with such deftness it would make any college professor blush.
We can only hope this debate will be as productive as the first.  


John Sandberg is a junior political science major from Littleton, Colo. He can be reached at jsandbe1@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.