I've never cared for the "town hall" debate format, and last night's entertainment did not change my opinion. The format emphasizes personality and an ability to connect with strangers rather than examining important public issues.
Regardless of my opinion, the format seems firmly planted in the American political landscape. President Obama pretty clearly won last night's debate, but it was not so much because of his performance as it was Mitt Romney's weak showing and stumbles. The two candidates exchanged some sharp challenges and displayed more than a little irritation. Obama, however, seemed more comfortable while Romney got flustered and irritated by some of the comments by the president, who clearly enjoyed needling the challenger.
Neither candidate addressed the big issues they've been avoiding throughout most of the campaign. Neither has produced a coherent, passable deficit reduction and debt elimination plan. Despite his adamant insistence that his tax-cut proposal will reduce the deficit, Romney's plan doesn't seem plausible to most economists or to me. He failed, however, to point out that Obama doesn't have a workable plan either. If they were honest with the public and with themselves, they would admit that cutting the deficit will be painful. We've been spending wildly and will have to pay the piper. We will also face painful changes to Social Security and Medicare, which are headed toward insolvency.
Romney seems determined to cut taxes, even though tax cuts during wartime has helped get us into this mess. And Obama's claim that he would use money not spent on wars to rebuild American infrastructure ignores the fact that the wars were financed by borrowed money, so his spending plan would require more borrowing and more debt.
Both candidates flubbed the question on equal pay. Obama referred to the Lily Ledbetter Act, which Congress passed overwhelmingly and is the law of the land, as is the Equal Pay Act. And then he went off on a tangent about health care and contraception. Mr. President, the question was about equal pay!
But leave it to Romney to create the latest social media sensation with his story about getting "binders of women" when he was governor of Massachusetts. The question was about equal pay, not about job opportunities. What both men should have said was something like this: "It's true that women earn less than men, despite federal laws that prohibit discrimination on account of gender. But the gap between men's and women's pay is narrowing and will continue to narrow. More women than men are earning college degrees, and the recent recession resulted in more men than women being laid off, so that gender pay gap is likely going to disappear. At least some of the pay difference is the result of career or lifestyle choices. Many women interrupt their careers to care for young children, and this results in a loss of potential earnings. This, too, is changing as more and more men are staying home while their wives work. Some women have been reluctant to pursue some highly compensated vocations, but that, too, is changing. Pay discrimination is illegal, and it is being enforced, and as society changes and society's expectations of women change, the pay gap will continue to narrow and will probably disappear completely."