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a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

The curious incident of the 47% in the debate

Posted by Thomas Nephew on October 8th, 2012

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.
(“Silver Blaze“, Arthur Conan Doyle)

We watched last Wednesday’s presidential debate at the neighbor’s house, and their young daughter brought down a white board to keep score as the debate proceeded.  And one thing even a sixth grader — are you paying attention, David Axelrod? —  knew to watch for was the word “forty-seven.”

As may or may not be well known, that score at the end of the evening turned out to be 3-0 for Romney.*  What happened?  Why did Obama refuse to land a completely legitimate punch painting Romney as the out-of-touch, contemptuous plutocrat he is?  David Corn — the Mother Jones reporter who broke the “47%” video that had the Romney campaign reeling for much of September — was understandably interested as well.  The answer he got from a “top campaign official”:

Not that we won’t talk about it again. We will. But [what’s] most compelling [is] hearing it from Romney himself. We’ve got that on the air at a heavy dollar amount in key states. And it’s sunk in. Ultimately the president’s goal last night was to speak past the pundits and directly to the undecided voter tuning in for the first time about the economic choice and his plans to restore economic security.

Hm. Simple folk like you and me might think that Romney’s Boca Raton “47%” remarks might be the perfect vehicle for speaking to voters about their economic choices.  While Romney could simply disavow those remarks (and did the next day), even a rudimentary political talent might have had some good responses ready during the debate, whether short and brutal (“there he lies again”) or amused (“as usual, it’s even hard for Romney to keep up with Romney’s positions!  The one thing you can be sure of is that whatever he says now in public, he’ll gladly say the opposite in private — especially when he’s talking to his campaign contributors.  Whose side are they on?”)

Clearly, Obama thought about the “47%” gambit,” played out the moves, and decided he didn’t want to go there.  Why would that be? Could it be that Romney and Obama aren’t the high-contrast economic policy choices they’re commonly described as?  Might the Obama campaign be just as interested in how it will win as in whether it will win?

I think so, and I think the reason has to do with Obama’s plans for one of the most fundamental pocketbook issues there can be for the 47%: Social Security.  During the debate, Obama actually preferred to stress agreement between himself and Romney on the safety net centerpiece: You know, I suspect that, on Social Security, we’ve got a somewhat similar position. ” 

As Firedoglake’s David Dayen pointed out on Saturday, the Obama campaign’s post-debate attempts to draw distinctions between Obama and Romney on Social Security only revealed a set of “principles” that were “constructed to give Obama maximum wiggle room on Social Security, so that all people can read into it whatever they want.”  In particular, the only rock-solid assurance careful readers of the Obama campaign web page involved would see was opposition to privatization. But while Obama is against “slashing” benefits, the door is left wide open to cuts.  In fact, only “current” beneficiaries could count on their “basic” benefits not being reduced.  And no mention at all was made of raising the income cap — by far the most popular Social Security improvement among progressives.  To be sure, the campaign language pledges “never to undermine Social Security.”  But it defines “undermining” so narrowly that it may well include locking in benefit cuts well ahead of any need to do so.

Needless to say, none of this is is well designed to generate cheering throngs of “47%ers” — and if Obama had gone after Romney’s Boca Raton remarks tooth and nail, the way a real friend of the 47% (or the 98%, or the 99%) would have, these would be anything but the strong assurances newfound supporters would want to see in Obama campaign literature.

And they’d be doubly concerned if they happened to read this political weather report, of a major low pressure system building further out to sea. On Wednesday, buried amid horse race and debate hype, Ryan Grim of the Huffington Post reported:

Billionaire private equity mogul Peter Peterson is investing millions of dollars in a new Washington-based campaign for austerity, planning to blanket the airwaves after the election to bolster the case for a “grand bargain” in Congress’ lame-duck session that would slash Medicare and Social Security spending in exchange for new tax revenue.***

As Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein put it in the excellent “Democracy Now!” counterdebate last Wednesday (in which Stein and Rocky Anderson were essentially pitted against TiVoed Obama and Romney debate clips):

[Obama and Romney] are both aiming for Social Security to be about 5% of GDP some years down the line whether it’s four or eight years, and on Medicare, they are both aiming for Medicare to be reduced to about 2.2% of GDP. […]  On Social Security, Obama is already calling for some cuts, basically to the cost of living reimbursements. So, heads up about what is going to happen after the election. You will see the walk differ from the talk. […] Again, a sign that things are not really different between these two corporate-sponsored candidates.

No, they aren’t.  It’s hard to see Obama’s missing 47% remarks as anything but the dog that didn’t bark — as Social Security’s enemies made their intentions for the post-election period fully known.

Maybe those arguing selfish lefties are endangering the future by not joining the Democratic vote in November should direct their ire elsewhere.  Last Wednesday, Obama purposely avoided landing a populist knockout punch against Romney —  just to keep his options open for a so-called “Grand Bargain” on ‘entitlements,’ austerity, and taxes.  Liberals, progressives, and Democrats should wake up.  As the saying goes, just because you’re on his side doesn’t mean he’s on yours.

=====
* 47 education training programs, 47 million on food stamps (twice).
** That appears to be Corn’s interim, loyal conclusion about why Obama squandered his scoop.  Referring to Romney’s disavowal of the 47% remark the next day, Corn wrote: “Purposefully or not, Obama ended up denying Romney a national platform for his reversal and forced Romney to play this move on Fox, where he wouldn’t be speaking directly to millions of people ticked off by his comments.”  We’re well into “up is down” here: “denying a national platform for his reversal”?!  Wouldn’t that be better described as “performing the mother of all completely unbelievable flip-flops on national TV”
*** Via digby, “Hullabaloo,” whose commentary about all this is great as usual.

UPDATE, 10/9:  “Obama ‘believed he had BEATEN Romney’ in Denver debate – after ignoring advice of top aides on preparation” (Harnden, UK Daily Mail): ‘He went into the debate armed with a number of one-liners to throw at Romney, including at least two about Romney not caring about 47 per cent of the country. But he decided not to use them.’ If true, his campaign team is off this particular hook — but also appears inconsequential.

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