“Debates Don’t Matter,” and Other Silly Notions

“Debates Don’t Matter,” and Other Silly Notions

A little over 7 years ago, I wrote a blog post about the importance of debates in Presidential politics. Obama was running for re-election against Romney, and they were debating each other about a month before the election. At the time, I wrote: “As I surfed Fizzborg, the Twitter, and other haunts of the political commentariat last night and this morning, a theme kept surfacing: these debates were nothing but political theater, and therefore a waste of time.”

I said then, and I’ll repeat again, political debates matter. But where in 2012, I argued that they matter because the pagentry and seeming emptiness of political debates is actually loaded with meaning, this morning I’m inclined to make a complementary argument that the debates are not empty at all. In fact, primary debates are one of the chief vehicles in American politics for politicians to discuss policy under pressure. While the memorable moments are often scripted insults, debates like the one I watched last night are far more revealing of candidates’ priorities than, say, rallies or websites, because candidates have to defend their beliefs and plans in front of their opponents. And in those moments, they often reveal themselves to people who are watching closely.

Here’s an example. Last night, Michael Bloomberg and Bernie Sanders traded barbs about taxing the rich. Sanders made the argument that the current economic system in America is “socialism for the very rich. Rugged individualism for the poor.” Bloomberg responded, “The best known socialist in the country happens to be a millionaire with three houses.”

At that point, Sanders and Bloomberg were trading insults, and that’s the part that will be replayed on the electric teevee machine and picked endlessly over by the talking heads. But it’s a little further down in the exchange that we should actually pay attention to.

SANDERS: …Where is your home, which tax haven do you live in?

BLOOMBERG: New York City, thank you very much. And I pay all my taxes. And I’m happy to do it because I get something for it. And let me say, I thought senator next to me was half right. I agree we should raise taxes.

To my mind, Bloomberg’s most significant statement is right in the middle of his response and it’s one he wasn’t trying to score points with: “I’m happy to [pay taxes] because I get something for it.” It may not seem like much, but this is actually a very specific view of what taxes are supposed to do.

Conventionally, taxes are levied to fund the public good. Wikipedia has a detailed gloss of what a public good is in economics, but Investopedia has a more digestible definition: “A public good is a product that an individual can consume without reducing its availability to others and of which no one is deprived. Examples of public goods include law enforcement, national defense, sewer systems, public parks, and the air we breathe. As those examples reveal, public goods are almost always publicly financed.” In the conventional view, public goods exist for us all, and we all pay to maintain them.

In Bloomberg’s statement, however, he talks about taxes in a way that isn’t conventional in economics, but is increasingly common in America. He seems to think of taxes in terms of ROI–return on investment. I pay taxes, I should get something for it.

The ROI view of taxes, as I said, is increasingly common in America because Americans distrust taxes and distrust the idea of public goods. In Arizona, for example, there are raging debates about school funding. For decades Arizona has allowed people who own homes in the state to vote even if their primary residence is somewhere else. As a result, hundreds of thousands–maybe millions–of people who own vacation homes in Arizona vote. And many of those voters have openly resisted raising taxes for education because they don’t have kids in Arizona schools.

Lots of research exists that shows an educated populous is a public good–it benefits society economically, socially, and culturally. But an ROI view of taxes says I should get a direct and immediate return on investment. And if I don’t, I shouldn’t have to pay. That view of tax policy can have significant effects on, say, school funding in a place where people vacation but don’t live, or where they live but don’t have kids in school.

The ROI view of taxes is newly relevant in Arizona because advocates for private school and education vouchers have been arguing that they shouldn’t have to pay taxes for education if their children don’t go to public schools. They reject the notion of public schools and public goods if they don’t feel like they’re getting a return on their investment. And of course, it can easily apply to lots of other kinds of public goods that people don’t see an immediate ROI from.

It’s hard to say just how invested Bloomberg is in an ROI model of taxation, but his knee-jerk recourse to the rhetoric of ROI–I get something for my taxes!–invites us to study the exchange carefully. For example, even in advocating for raising taxes, Bloomberg only went so far as to say he’d roll back Trump’s tax cuts. He did not suggest–as Sanders and Warren have–that we should raise taxes above those levels to fund education, infrastructure, health care, and so on. They are two very different models of public expenditure on display in the back and forth between Sanders and Bloomberg.

Whether you agree with Bloomberg or with Sanders on the topic of tax policy, my point is that they are only in that discussion–which is a wonky policy discussion, at heart–because they are in the debates. Those kinds of unvarnished moments can reveal substantive differences, not just in policy but in underlying values. And they are most likely to surface in unscripted exchanges where both candidates have to explain themselves under pressure.

The Bloomberg/Sanders exchange is just one instance where these revealing moments happened. In another, Buttigieg got upset when Sanders accused him of being funded by billionaires.

BUTTIGIEG: All right, look, first of all — look, my campaign is fueled by hundreds of thousands of contributors.

In a moment of anger, he invited us to ask ourselves if “hundreds of thousands of contributors” is actually good evidence for strong support, especially when other candidates on the stage are boasting of contributions from millions of people.

In another exchange, Elizabeth Warren tried to defend Amy Klobuchar from accusations that she’s unqualified because she forgot the Mexican president’s name. Klobuchar was clearly irked at what she thought was a condescending defense from Warren, but in her irritation, Klobuchar got to make the point that she was involved in a policy discussion about Latin America on the same day she dropped a name.

What we see in all the examples, and in dozens of others, is people trying to define themselves–IN RELATION TO POLICY–while under fire from their opponents. That doesn’t happen in virtually any other context in American politics. And while it can sometimes be subtle and overwhelmed by sniping, it’s actually a really important and really interesting phenomenon if you’re watching for it.

By the time we get to debates in the general election, they’ll be different. Actually, I’m predicting we actually won’t this time around because I don’t think Trump wants to share a stage with his opponent. But even if we did, they play a different role in the general election. They’re less about policy and more about signalling to a candidate’s base. But in the primary debates, especially as we get closer to choosing a nominee, there are significant and important forms of public debate going on in front of our eyes.

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