What they didn't say at the debates

The stage is set prior to the first presidential debate at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. Saul Loeb/AFP/GettyImages

The stage is set prior to the first presidential debate at Magness Arena at the University of Denver, Oct. 3, 2012.
Saul Loeb/AFP/GettyImages

With three debates down and one to go, much has been made of what the candidates and the moderators said. Depending on who you ask, President Obama was pacific, then feisty. Mitt Romney was presidential, then peevish. Sleepy Jim Lehrer dropped the ball; steely Martha Raddatz did not. And Candy Crowley was assertive, for better or for worse.

Less attention has been paid, however, to what the candidates and moderators didn't say - the questions (and answers) left on the cutting room floor.

Admittedly, 90 minutes is too short a timeframe to check every box. Constituencies who demand ample airtime for pet issues must face the reality that these debates are at once the briefest and most potent events in the campaign timeline. At a nationally-televised presidential debate, economizing the discussion is not irresponsible, it's inevitable.

But with the domestic policy portions of the 2012 debates now elapsed - the final debate will deal exclusively with foreign policy - it seems appropriate to take stock of the domestic issues about which we heard very little (or nothing at all).

Housing

Since 2007, roughly four million homeowners have been pushed into foreclosure. Average home prices are close to where they were a decade ago. Approximately one in four homeowners are saddled with mortgages that exceed the value of their home. In short, the housing market, despite recent signs of tentative recovery, remains dismal. Problems with housing helped crash the economy in 2007, and the moribund housing market remains arguably the biggest drag on overall economic recovery today, crimping the spending habits of homeowners who are simply trying to keep their heads above the water.

Critics left, right, and center have slammed the Obama administration's housing policy as inadequate or ineffective. The government bailed out the banks, it bailed out the auto industry, it bailed out insurance giant AIG - but it did not bail out beleaguered homeowners. Instead, the administration incentivized banks to refinance mortgages or write off debt, opting for carrots over sticks.

Romney's own housing proposals, meanwhile, have been criticized for their lack of detail and specificity.

Given the lethargy of the housing recovery and the myriad, substantive critiques of the candidates' housing policies, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Mr. Obama and Romney would be pressed on the issue. After all, four years ago, in the wake of financial calamity, all three presidential debates touched on the housing crisis.

This time, nary a peep - Romney briefly mentioned housing during the first debate in the context of explaining his opposition to the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory reform bill. But there was not a single dedicated question about the housing market and the candidates' plans to resuscitate it.

The omission grated on some. Alan Jenkins, executive director of the Opportunity Agenda, told the San Francisco Chronicle, "I'm astounded that the candidates haven't addressed housing. After jobs, it's the most important aspect of our economic recovery."

Then again, they may not have much to say. "It's not really a winner of an issue for either candidate," explained Trulia Chief Economist Jed Kolko. "Obama's main housing initiative fell short of expectations...but at the same time Romney hasn't proposed bold new ideas for housing."

Immigration

Few debates in American life today are as fractious as the national conversation about immigration.

Among Mr. Obama's first-term agenda items, immigration reform stands out as perhaps the most glaring unfinished business. The president, who promised to sign a comprehensive immigration reform bill in his first term, has described the failure of the DREAM Act as his biggest disappointment.

Despite the lack of legislative activity on immigration reform over the last four years, there has been quite a bit of administrative action. Mr. Obama issued a series of executive orders granting a reprieve - and a visa - to undocumented youths who would have trekked the path to citizenship under the DREAM Act. The administration also refocused deportation proceedings on those with a criminal record and has expelled undocumented residents at a record pace - almost 400,000 in 2011.

A September Univision forum dealt extensively with the issue, perhaps understandably given the centrality of the issue to the political concerns of the Hispanic-American community.

Fights over immigration also animated the Republican primary more than any other single issue, with numerous GOP primary debates diving deep into the weeds of immigration policy. And in 2008, the issue surfaced repeatedly during debates between Mr. Obama and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

But in 2012, after three general election debates, only one immigration question has been asked (and that one by an undecided voter at the town hall debate, though the question was curated by moderator Candy Crowley.)

Voter interest in the issue is evidently intense, if social media are any guide - the lone immigration query was the single most tweeted moment in the town-hall forum - but you wouldn't know it based on immigration's meager showing in the debates.

  • Jake Miller

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