Wonkbook: Presidential Debate 2: The Town Hall Strikes Back

October 16, 2012

Welcome to Wonkbook, Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas's morning policy news primer. To subscribe by e-mail, click here. Send comments, criticism, or ideas to Wonkbook at Gmail dot com. To read more by Ezra and his team, go to Wonkblog.

Wonkbook dashboard

RCP Obama vs. Romney: Romney +0.1%; 7-day change: Romney +4.0%.

RCP Obama approval: 49.2%; 7-day change: -0.5%.

Intrade percent chance of Obama win: 61.4%; 7-day change: -5.2%.

Wonkbook's Number of the Day: 3.1 percentage points. That's the swing towards Mitt Romney in the Real Clear Politics average of polls between October 3rd, the day of the first debate, and today. Smarter poll readers than me have looked at these numbers and concluded that at least some of the movement towards Romney had begun prior to the first debate. Nevertheless, the first debate was clearly a huge, disruptive event in the presidential election, vaulting Romney to his first lead in 2012. The question tonight is whether Barack Obama can get some of those percentage points back, and if so, how many.

Top story: Previewing the second presidential debate

Tonight is debate night in America, round two. "President Barack Obama and his Republican rival, Mitt Romney, enter their debate Tuesday night with different goals than the last time they met: Mr. Romney will try to build on growing strength among centrist voters that arose from his performance in the first debate, while Mr. Obama will aim to portray Mr. Romney as more conservative than his opponent has recently suggested...Aides said Mr. Romney has been focused in his debate preparations on how best to contrast his own policies with those of Mr. Obama on taxes, health care, Libya and other matters, while also connecting with voters." Laura Meckler, Sara Murray, and Carol E. Lee in The Wall Street Journal.

@TheStalwart: Is there anyone who has predicted that Obama just gets totally crushed tomorrow again? That seems like the real Black Swan outcome.

The format for tonight's debate: town hall. "The format for the second presidential debate is designed to be a little less stiff -- a free-flowing question-and-answer session between the candidates and a studio audience. But behind the scenes, little is left to chance. There are 80 participants, culled by Gallup, the polling firm, from a sample of uncommitted voters who live near the debate’s location in Hempstead on Long Island. On Tuesday morning, they are scheduled to arrive at the site to begin rehearsals with the moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley...There are strict time limits and rules. After the audience member asks a question, his or her microphone will be immediately shut off. The candidate will have two minutes to answer. The other candidate is then given two minutes to respond. Then the moderator will be able to pose a follow-up question of her choosing, with each candidate allowed one minute to respond." Jeremy W. Peters in The New York Times.

@petersuderman: I am ok with having one debate with rules set by campaigns. But it would be interesting to have another with rules set by outsiders.

Interview: NationalJournal's Christopher Peleo-Lazar sits down with tonight's debate moderator, CNN's Candy Crowley.

Behind the scenes: the memo of understanding between the campaigns. "No props. No 'show of hands' questions by the moderator. And by all means, no direct questions from one candidate to another. Those rules, and many others, for the presidential debates were revealed on Monday when the memorandum of understanding between the campaigns of President Obama and Mitt Romney surfaced for the first time. The lawyerly memos are de rigueur during debate seasons, but the viewing public rarely knows about the restrictions...Ms. Crowley, however, never accepted the rules, nor did any of the other moderators selected by the group that holds the debates, the Commission on Presidential Debates." Brian Stelter in The New York Times.

READ: The full memorandum of understanding.

@ezraklein: I hate that debate rules are effectively set by the campaigns rather than by a body representing voters

And the where: Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY.

Obama's tone in the second debate. "President Obama is 'energized' for Tuesday’s debate with Mitt Romney and plans to be 'firm but respectful in correcting the record,' campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters Monday. 'You should expect that he’s going to be firm but respectful in correcting the record and the times we expect Mitt Romney will hide from and distort his own policies,' Psaki said. 'He’s energized and I expect he will also be making a passionate case.'" Rachel Weiner in The Washington Post.

@pourmecoffee: I would like to see a town hall debate with all of the undecided voters. Then we could lock the door and let the rest of us vote.

Explainer: Debate advice to Obama from the Beltway.

Obama goes into the debate having successfully lowered expectations. "If President Obama’s first debate did nothing else, it sure lowered expectations for his performance in the second debate...On the eve of Tuesday night’s second presidential debate at Hofstra University, voters are divided as to which candidate they think will do the better job: 41% say Obama will do better, while 37% expect Romney to prevail. This stands in stark contrast to expectations prior to the first presidential debate two weeks ago, which voters expected Obama to win by a 51%-29% margin." Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

@JohnJHarwood: U know ur watching a base election when the 2 big moves (Obama post-convo, Romney post-debate) mainly involve increased fervor by partisans

Romney goes into the debate with new, relatively strong fundraising numbers. "Mitt Romney’s campaign said Monday that it had raised $170.4 million in the month of September, falling short of the staggering $181 million monthly total reported by President Obama’s reelection campaign...This came during Romney’s most difficult month as a candidate, when he lost significant ground in the polls...The September total does not reflect the surge in donor enthusiasm following Romney’s performance in the Oct. 3 debate with Obama...The Romney campaign said its September fundraising was fueled by small-dollar donors. More than 1 million people gave $250 or less, accounting for about 93 percent of total donations." Philip Rucker in The Washington Post.

@blakehounshell: I don't think Romney will have a bad debate night on Tuesday. He's a pretty consistent guy. Obama will really need to step it up.

Watch: A recent history of second presidential debates.

KINSLEY: This debate, check arguments, not facts. "Many campaign thrusts and parries can be verified or discredited by reason and logic alone. They just don’t make sense (or, on occasion, they do make sense) without reference to any numbers or studies. Reason doesn’t require the approval of the Congressional Budget Office." Michael Kinsley in Bloomberg.

@MattZeitlin: Signs Obama may be screwed: supporters are starting to talk up the campaign's superior GOTV infrastructure

GORDON: A short history of presidential debates. "Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the history of presidential debates, given their recent importance, is how short that history is...Not until Sept. 26, 1960, did a presidential debate take place, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, the first of four debates that year...Presidential debates have not been decisive since and for the most part have not even been memorable. The campaigns have learned how to prep the candidates thoroughly and to set rules that minimize the chance of a major gaffe...Debates have been run by the two parties ever since, and often more closely resemble side-by-side press conferences than discussions of the issues." John Steele Gordon in The Wall Street Journal.

Top op-eds

BROOKS: The craftmanship of democracy. "[P]rimary campaigns are won by the candidate who can most convincingly champion the party’s agenda, but general election campaigns are won by the candidate who can most plausibly fix the political system. So let’s think carefully about what sort of leader it would take to break through the partisan dysfunction and make Washington work." David Brooks in The New York Times.

KLEIN: There's nothing courageous about raising the Social Security retirement age. "This is one of Washington, D.C.’s more disagreeable conceits...The courage it takes to call for a higher retirement age is the courage to say that other people who don’t have it as good as you do should be the ones to pay to shore up Social Security. It’s the same kind of courage as a poor person calling for higher taxes on the rich, or a sitting congressman calling for a war he’ll never have to fight in. Meanwhile, you could do more to erase Social Security’s shortfall by simply lifting the payroll tax cap...[but] lifting the payroll tax cap would also end up costing eminent think tankers and journalists and lobbyists and politicians a whole lot of money. Perhaps consequentially, it’s a rather less popular policy idea in this town. Many consider it an easy way out, even though it would be much harder on them. Courage and sacrifice for thee, but not for me." Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

MEAD: Infrastructure, or infostructure? "Lobbying for more highways and high-speed rail misses the point. What's needed instead is support for advancing the Information Age economy. Government policy could reward companies that promote telecommuting and teleconferencing, for example, or otherwise facilitate the transition...There is still much work to do to build the information superhighways we will need to compete in this century and the defense systems that can protect them against cyberattack. Government will have a significant role to play in creating a suitable regulatory structure and policy framework to accelerate this process. Yes, our existing roads, bridges and highways should be maintained, and in some cases enhanced. Even so, more physical infrastructure isn't our main need at this point. We don't want to build the 21st-century equivalent of a new and improved national canal network. Infostructure rather than infrastructure should be the priority." Walter Russell Mead in The Wall Street Journal.

@MattZeitlin: Say what you will about crony capitalism, but it could probably get some LNG export infrastructure built

REINHART AND ROGOFF: U.S. recoveries are the same as abroad. "Recently, however, a few op-ed writers have argued that, in fact, the U.S. is 'different' and that international comparisons aren’t relevant because of profound institutional differences from one country to another...[W]e have to take issue with gross misinterpretations of the facts." Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff in Bloomberg.

PONNURU: I pity the protectionist fool. "If you live in Ohio or Wisconsin and own a television, you might be under the impression that America’s main foreign enemies are the exporters of China. They’re the leading villains in political ads from both presidential nominees...Romney’s decision to portray Obama as weak on trade with China, however, has had more real-world consequences than his free-trading comments...Romney pushed Obama in this direction -- and the two of them have given this campaign a more protectionist flavor than any presidential election in recent memory." Ramesh Ponnuru in Bloomberg.

Top long reads

Evan Osnos looks at the corruption and cost overruns that have plagued China's rail system, and that might have led to dozens of deaths. "To complete the first route by 2008, Minister Liu, whose ambition and flamboyance earned him the nickname Great Leap Liu, drove his crews and engineers to work in shifts around the clock, laying track, revising blueprints, and boring tunnels. 'To achieve a great leap,' he liked to say, 'a generation must be sacrificed.' (Some colleagues called him Lunatic Liu.) The state news service lionized an engineer named Xin Li, because he remained at his computer so long that he went partly blind in his left eye. ('I will keep working even without one eye,' he told a reporter.)"

Chris Jones profiles Montana Sen. Jon Tester: "Jon Tester may be facing the most bitter and portentous senate campaign of the year, but first things first: He's got to get the wheat in."

Jonathan Chait explains why 2012 matters: "Though their agendas are hidden, both Romney and Obama have plans to dramatically remake the size and character of American government. Very, very quickly."

Frank Rich tells us why the modern right is here to stay: "Were the 2012 campaign a Hitchcock movie, Mitt Romney would be the MacGuffin—a device that drives a lot of plot gyrations but proves inconsequential in itself. Then again, Barack Obama could be, too. Our down-to-the-wire presidential contest is arguably just a narrative speed bump in the scenario that has been gathering steam throughout the Obama presidency: the resurgence of the American right, the most determined and coherent political force in America. No matter who is elected president, what Romney calls severe conservatism will continue to consolidate its hold over one of our two major parties. And that party is hardly destined for oblivion."

So this is what happens when interlude: You have an uncanny resemblance to an incumbent president and your life is turned upside down.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail me.

Still to come: a Fed official's important re-examination of the monetary policy record; healthcare cost control in action; Arizon immigration law going to Supreme Court; why coal is in decline; how US states have shifted politically.

Economy

Higher consumer confidence leading to higher spending. "Americans boosted their spending in September on everything from iPhones to restaurant meals in the latest sign that the consumer economy is gaining strength even as other sectors are weakening. Retail and restaurant sales rose a seasonally adjusted 1.1% in September from August, and the Commerce Department boosted its estimate for sales over the summer. Sales have now climbed for three consecutive months after flagging during the spring." Ben Casselman and Ann Zimmerman in The Wall Street Journal.

@grossdm: consumers are from mars, business is from venus. As @britholtz notes: Sept. retail sales up, Oct. manufacturing pointing down

Why are consumers blind to the oncoming fiscal cliff? "We’re creeping closer to “taxmaggedon,” but America’s consumers don’t seem terribly concerned. The University of Michigan’s consumer confidence index hit a five-year high for October, the Wall Street Journal points out. That suggests that most ordinary Americans are either unaware of or unconcerned about the fiscal cliff, despite the direct hit that it could have on their pocketbooks...But the rising confidence has also left some analysts scratching their heads." Suzy Khimm in The Washington Post.

Fed official: monetary policy was too tight. "The Federal Reserve’s recent expansion of its economic stimulus campaign was announced as a course correction. It wasn’t that economic circumstances had changed, officials said. They simply had concluded that they needed to do more. The implication, of course, was that the Fed had failed to do enough. William C. Dudley, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, made that point explicit in a Monday speech." Binyamin Appelbaum in The New York Times.

Infographics interlude: Over the decades, how states have shifted politically.

Health Care

Cost control in action. "The United States spends $750 billion annually on health care that does not make us any healthier. The world’s oldest private cancer center, Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York City, announced Monday a surprising step to bring down that number. It will not offer patients a $11,000 per month cancer drug called Zaltrap. Simply put, top executives do not believe the drug is worth the price tag...Health care is not like most other industries. As the Sloan-Kettering officials note, Medicare is required to cover any FDA-approved drug without regard for price or efficacy." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

A Romney-like Medicare would mean higher costs for seniors. "The Kaiser Family Foundation has taken a deep dive into world of premium support, modeling a plan pretty similar to Mitt Romney’s proposed Medicare reforms. The bottom line: If implemented right now, most seniors would pay more under the current premium support proposals...The Romney-Ryan proposal would hold off a decade before transitioning to this system...There are a lot of unknowns about Medicare’s future, variables that are pretty crucial to understanding what premium support would mean for seniors. What we do know, right now, is this: Implementing a premium support system right now would mean higher costs for the majority of seniors." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

Domestic Policy

That Arizona immigration law? It's going to the Supreme Court. "The Supreme Court entered another battle in the continuing war over voter qualifications, agreeing Monday to consider whether Arizona can require proof of citizenship when people register to vote...Supreme Court arguments have yet to be scheduled and won't take place until after Election Day." Jess Bravin in The Wall Street Journal.

The budget crisis which is likely to define the next four years, whoever holds the presidency. "President Obama and Mitt Romney will again debate their visions for the next four years on Tuesday night, and if the campaign so far is any guide, they will not acknowledge that the winner’s agenda could depend on the fiscal showdown between Election Day and Inauguration Day." Jackie Calmes in The New York Times.

Nobel interlude: Both laureates' work have public policy implications.

Energy

Why coal is in decline. "Two things about coal are true right now. First, the U.S. coal industry really is in decline -- the nation is burning far less coal to generate electricity than it did five years ago. Second, the Environmental Protection Agency under President Obama really has enacted a bunch of new rules that will require coal-fired power plants to curb their pollution...But it’s not true that the Obama administration is wholly responsible for coal’s current decline...The U.S. coal industry would be struggling even without Obama’s pollution rules. Coal’s biggest problem at the moment is the recent influx of cheap natural gas in the United States." Brad Plumer in The Washington Post.

And another problem: coal ash. "The ash left after burning coal includes toxic elements such as arsenic, lead, cadmium, selenium and mercury. Produced by 431 coal-fired power plants, which supply 36 percent of the nation’s electricity, coal ash piles up at the staggering rate of 140 million tons a year. More than 40 percent of it is recycled to help make concrete, gypsum wallboard and pavement. But utilities store the rest in landfills, ponds or mines, and evidence has been growing in recent years that leakage is a problem...Water contaminated by coal ash violated federal drinking water or health standards at at least 197 sites in 37 states,."Juliet Eilperin in The Washington Post.

Belief in global warming is rising in both parties. "Growing numbers of Democrats, Republicans and independent voters believe global warming is occurring, but sharp partisan divides on the topic remain, a new poll shows. The Pew Research Center poll released Monday shows that 67 percent of Americans say there is solid evidence of global warming...Eighty-five percent of Democrats believe there is solid evidence of warming, up from 77 percent last year; 65 percent of independents hold that view, up two percent from last year, while 48 percent of Republicans see solid evidence of warming, a five point increase over last year and 13 points higher than in 2009." Ben German in The Hill.

T. Boone Pickens goes 'gone with the wind.' "Billionaire oil-and-gas tycoon T. Boone Pickens is abandoning his long-planned wind farm, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Pickens has in recent years changed his eponymous 'Pickens Plan' for reducing oil imports to emphasize natural gas rather than wind power for electricity generation. The Star Tribune reported Pickens sold his stake in the Goodhue County, Minn., farm, but that the 50-turbine, $180 million project will go forward." Zack Colman in The Hill.

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