Debate Speak: A Big
Night for Policy Wonks and Big Bird Fans
October 5, 2012
During the presidential debate Wednesday night, President Barack Obama
and Republican challenger Mitt Romney used terms that might have been
easily understood -- but only by political junkies.
For Tom Hollihan, a professor of communications at the Annenberg School
for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern
California, who specializes in presidential debates, the most noteworthy
thing was that the debate was "very respectful" and focused primarily on
But Hollihan also noticed something that might not have been very
helpful to Americans still trying to decide who to vote for on November
"Some of the language was very sophisticated and probably presumed an
intimate knowledge of public policy that maybe failed to communicate
with voters who don't follow political issues or discussions very
closely," he said. "And in that those tend to be the folks who are the
late deciders in a political campaign, it may have suggested that a lot
of the conversation went over the heads of the undecided voters."
For example, the candidates used terms like "Simpson-Bowles" and
"Dodd-Frank," not necessarily widely understood by the public.
"Simpson-Bowles was a panel that was put together to work on bipartisan
solutions on debt reduction, and they produced a report that in the end
the partisans in both the Republican and the Democratic party were
unwilling to support," explained Hollihan. "And so it languished, it
never got a second look. Dodd-Frank was a whole series of legislative
reforms to more closely regulate the financial sector."
Another term that cropped up during the debate was "trickle-down
government," used by Mitt Romney.
"The president has a view very similar to the view he had when he ran
four years ago, that a bigger government spending more, taxing more,
regulating more -- if you will, trickle-down government -- would work,"
Romney said. "That's not the right answer for America."
The term "trickle down" is generally associated with Republicans -- but
more precisely, with criticism of Republican policies. The Republican
candidate's use of that term probably made a lot of Americans think back
to the criticisms of former President Ronald Reagan's administration in
Hollihan believes that may been the point: to turn the phrase around
into a criticism of the Democratic policies of Obama.
"Trickle-down government is literally an attempt to counter a term that
the Democrats have been using since the presidency of Ronald Reagan,"
said Hollihan. "Which is that Republican economic theories of tax breaks
for the wealthy elite, the people Romney refers to as 'job creators,'
will eventually trickle down and create economic growth, but will raise
the income levels of all Americans."
And in that moment, Romney seemed to be giving the term a new meaning.
"I think he's trying to capture an element of the phrase that Democrats
have had success using and argue that trickle-down government presumes
that government, through regulation, can redistribute wealth and can
move the resources down from the wealthy to the poorer Americans, as
opposed to raising all income levels," said Hollihan.
Moderator and journalist Jim Lehrer asked the candidates the candidates
about the issue of revenue.
JIM LEHRER: "Now, about the idea that in order to reduce the deficit
there has to be revenue in addition to cuts."
BARACK OBAMA: "There has to be revenue in addition to cuts. Now,
Governor Romney has ruled out revenue. Heís ruled out revenue.
JIM LEHRER: "Is that --
MITT ROMNEY: "Absolutely. Look, the revenue I get is by more people
working, getting higher pay, paying more taxes. That's how we get growth
and how we balance the budget. But the idea of taxing people more,
putting more people out of work, youíll never get there. You never
balance the budget by raising taxes. Spain -- Spain spends 42 percent of
their total economy on government. Weíre now spending 42 percent of our
economy on government. I don't want to go down the path of Spain. I want
to go down the path of growth that puts Americans to work with more
money coming in because they're working."
JIM LEHRER: "But, Mr. President, youíre saying in order to get the job
done, itís got to be balanced."
BARACK OBAMA: "If weíre serious, weíve got to take a balanced,
responsible approach. And by the way, this is not just when it comes to
individual taxes. Letís talk about corporate taxes. Now, Iíve identified
areas where we can right away make a change that I believe would
actually help the economy. The oil industry gets $4 billion a year in
corporate welfare. Basically, they get deductions that those small
businesses that Governor Romney refers to, they don't get. Now, does
anybody think that Exxon Mobil needs some extra money when they're
making money every time you go to the pump?
Why wouldnít we want to eliminate that?"
When Obama uses the term "revenue," he's usually not talking about it
the same way as Romney, said Hollihan.
"You know, there are lots of different ways that 'revenue' makes its way
into the language. The typical strategy is that tax increases are called
'revenue enhancements,' Hollihan explained. "But, of course, revenue can
come from overall growth of the economy. So... revenue from Mr. Romney's
perspective...he really means growing the economy and producing new
wealth and creating new revenues to flow to the government that way.
When Mr. Obama talks about revenue, he says, 'Well, you know that's not
going to solve our long-term structural economic problems. What we need
is a better balance between the income that government takes in and the
expenses that government makes," he said.
Which leads us to the term "corporate welfare." Hollihan explains what
that means in the context of a larger debate over "entitlements," which
now account for a big part of federal spending.
"Entitlements are any form of social safety spending, so food stamps or
Medicaid to provide medical assistance to families with extreme medical
expenses or needs, retirement systems. These are all embedded in the
"When you talk about corporate welfare, on the other hand, it's a
conversation that turns on specific tax breaks or incentives that were
created to spark certain types of corporate development or corporate
spending. These could be research and development tax credits, these
could be tax credits to locate factories in areas where there are high
economic needs. This could be tax breaks for the oil industry, for
instance, to make it easier for them to search for new places to drill
and to protect their losses if they drill dry holes," Hollihan said.
Entitlement programs cover millions of Americans, like the government's
Medicare health insurance for older people. But the spending levels for
these programs are a source of political friction.
And even the word itself is controversial, said Derek Malone-France, a
specialist in political rhetoric at George Washington University.
immediately recognize in the background of that term a lot of sort of
historical debates, social debates in this country, in the sense that
'entitlement' has a much different kind of implication than a 'right,'
"If you talk about something as a 'right' then you are clearly
indicating that you think it's a good thing, that people should have
whatever it is that they have a right to, whereas the term 'entitlement'
really pushes you more in the direction of a kind of critical stance,
that people feel entitled to. It's not that there's any...real technical
differentiation on that score, but because of the way American process
these terms," Malone-France said.
The candidates engaged in a lot of serious discussion of numbers and
details during the first of their three debates this month.
But there were also some lighter moments, particularly when Romney
mentioned Big Bird from "Sesame Street" in a discussion about he would
cut spending. He said the top thing on his list would be to eliminate
Obamacare -- the name that even the president uses for his major health
Romney then said he would stop government payments to PBS -- the Public
Broadcasting Service -- which not only carries "Sesame Street" but also
moderator Jim Lehrer's nightly news program.
MITT ROMNEY: "Iím sorry, Jim, Iím going to stop the subsidy to PBS. Iím
going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like
you, too. But Iím not going to keep on spending money on things to
borrow money from China to pay for it."
That exchange traveled quickly on social media outlets, like Twitter and
Facebook, Hollihan said.
"And so I think a lot of liberals said, 'Oh my goodness, it's not just
an assault on Democratic programs generally, it's an assault now on Big