If Mitt Romney and Barack Obama had been able to look through the television cameras at who was watching their first debate, it undoubtedly would have been more interesting than the debate itself.
Rush Limbaugh and the Fox News team would have been there, looking for red meat for the next day’s broadcasts. With any luck, Jon Stewart’s crew watched, too. The audience probably included the fraternal oil barons from Kansas who have set out to prove that when it comes to winning elections, things go better with Koch.
More generally, Obama and Romney would have seen an audience very interested in what each of them would do as president, but probably not very enlightened by how either candidate explained it. When he wasn’t changing his positions, Romney said what his campaign commercials say. So did Obama. Obama was the professor giving his lecture for the umpteenth time, while Romney was the CEO making the business case again to close the deal with the electorate. It was a debate that only policy wonks and political pundits could really love.
If the candidates could have seen their TV audience, they might have talked more about less esoteric topics closer to people’s lives. Each made an obligatory reference or two to the workaday people they’ve met on the campaign trail and to all the middle-class families that are jobless and homeless.
Yet even though the debate was about domestic issues, neither Obama nor Romney mentioned how he might develop a transportation program that actually saved oil. Or how the farm program might be reformed to protect the fertility of our soils for greater food security. They didn’t talk about water, a big issue in the region where the debate was held.
It’s a safe bet that the 30 million people who tuned into the debate included the farmers and small businesses in South Dakota, Texas, Nebraska, and Missouri who are watching their assets and their futures turn to dust because of the worst drought most of them have ever seen. Up and down the Mississippi River valley, some of last summer’s flood victims probably watched the debate, too. So did people along the Gulf Coast still recovering from Hurricane Isaac. The audience probably included families in California, Wyoming, New Mexico, Texas and Colorado who are still homeless because of last summer’s record wildfires, as well as elderly voters whose lives were threatened by this year’s record heat waves.
These are the people who know first hand that something strange is happening with the weather. All year long we’ve heard forecasters, news people and disaster victims describe the weather as unusual, unprecedented, record setting, weird, unlike anything they’ve ever seen before.
These middle Americans, quite possibly America’s first victims of global warming, may have been waiting for Obama or Romney to say what they would do about climate change over the next four years. What they have suffered is consistent with the predicted impacts of global warming. Some scientists have concluded the droughts, fires, floods, hyper-hurricanes and record heat of recent years are evidence that the damaging impacts of climate change have already begun.
But neither the moderator nor the candidates said one word about climate change and not one word to its victims. During his introduction, moderator Jim Lehrer alluded to the many requests he received from voters and viewers who wanted to hear about their topics. He didn’t mention they included 160,000 petitions he received from people who wanted him to ask the candidates what they’d do about global warming.
So as a public service, I’m one of the wonks who have read the candidates’ energy policy papers for clues on what they’d do about global warming. Here is the water cooler version of what they say:
Although he advocates an “all of the above” energy mix that includes oil, gas and coal, President Obama wants to move the United States further down the road to a clean energy economy. He envisions a country that gets 80% of its energy from clean resources by 2035, that transmits electricity over smart grids, that connects major cities with high-speed rail, that puts 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015, and that emits 80% less greenhouse gases by 2050.
In stark contrast, Romney’s position paper calls for the United States to become an “energy superpower” by rapidly expanding its production of coal, oil and natural gas, the fossil fuels that are responsible for climate change. Romney’s 21-page position paper gives only six words to renewable energy and says nothing at all about energy efficiency — the two best hopes for a low-carbon future. His paper doesn’t mention climate change.
As governor of Massachusetts in 2004, Romney issued a climate plan that looked a lot like Obama’s does now. The paper his campaign issued in August, however, looks as though it was written by the same oil executives Dick Cheney invited to write a national energy policy in 2001.
During the debate, the obvious questions about the Romney energy plan hung in the air unasked. How would he sustain America’s prosperity with unsustainable resources? How can he be serious about deficit reduction when he won’t even eliminate tax breaks for oil companies who don’t need them? How can he say he believes in a level playing field for energy (Page 19 of his energy plan), when he favors oil subsidies and opposes subsidies for renewable energy?
Instead, there was a lot of talk about topics like marginal tax rates and who was the better friend of America’s middle class. The candidates apparently felt they had little to gain by talking about climate change, even though the people on the other side of the camera have a lot to lose.
Maybe next time.
Bill Becker is executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project.