The Obama/Romney Debate: Shades of Kennedy/Nixon Without the Passion or Sweat

By Pam Martens: October 4, 2012 

Mitt Romney and President Obama in Their First Presidential Debate, October 3, 2012

Fifty-two years after the first televised Presidential debate, it’s stunning to see how little has changed.  The first debate was sponsored by the three corporate networks, ABC, CBS, NBC.  Those major networks still exist today.  The first debate was between candidates from the two major parties – Republican and Democrat – which still control elections today. And the content of the debate, 52 years later, still centers around a Democrat believing that government has a critical role in helping to improve the health, education and well being of its citizens and a Republican ensconced in the view that government is the problem. 

In last night’s debate, Republican candidate Mitt Romney repeated his party’s mantra — “free people and free enterprises, doing things together.” He said President Obama had a policy that equated to “trickle-down government.” 

Except for the sweat that dripped profusely from Richard Nixon’s face and the impassioned resonance of John F. Kennedy’s words, last night was a replay of a scene that’s getting very old and very tiresome to the majority of Americans who believe that government not only has a role in delivering a level playing field to society but should have the essential role in regulating business.  Most Americans believe that debate should have been settled long ago and that we stagnate as a country when it continues to dominate the dialogue of every election cycle. 

John Kennedy and Richard Nixon in the First Televised Presidential Debate, September 26, 1960

On September 26, 1960, approximately 70 million U.S. viewers turned on their televisions to watch the first ever Presidential debate in Chicago, Illinois. On the stage was Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Vice President Richard Nixon.  As the debate proceeded, Kennedy was calm, focused and armed with facts.  Nixon, who had recently been in the hospital for knee surgery, looked underweight and pale. As the debate wore on, with something of a Saturday Night Live quality to it, Nixon began to visibly perspire, wiping his face with a handkerchief when the camera moved to Kennedy. 

Just as last night, the contrast between the two parties’ view of the role of government came into sharp focus.  Kennedy reminded Nixon that when the Senate passed a bill to provide $1.25 minimum wage, it failed in the house because two-thirds of Republicans voted against it while two-thirds of Democrats voted for it.  Looking back to the historic obstructionist role of Republicans on social welfare matters, Kennedy said that in 1935 when Social Security was first introduced, 94 out of 95 Republicans voted against it.  Nixon called these measures “extreme.” 

Romney, frequently portrayed as cold and aloof, worked hard at showing a softer side last night, sharing these two anecdotes: “I was in Dayton, Ohio and a woman grabbed my arm, and she said, ‘I’ve been out of work since May. Can you help me?’ Ann yesterday was at a rally in Denver and a woman came up to her with a baby in her arms and said, ‘Ann, my husband has had four jobs in three years, part-time jobs. He’s lost his most recent job, and we’ve just lost our home. Can you help us?’” 

Had there not been a television audience watching, Romney might have said what he told the rich guests at the dinner party in Boca Raton that was captured on video: “My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” Instead, Romney told the television audience of potential voters — “The answer is yes we can help, but it’s going to take a different path.” 

Given the evidence that has piled up for over half a century, given the inability of the Romney/Ryan ticket to recognize or acknowledge the critical role of government, particularly in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, thinking Americans should be doing their part to block the “path” that Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, have in mind.

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