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No Genuine Debate on Role of Government

The section of the presidential debate on government's proper function was pretty thin.

In today's New York Times, Peter Baker characterizes last night's presidential race as presenting a stark contrast "over the very role of government in American society in a time of wrenching problems."

"On one side," he writes, "was an incumbent who, while recognizing that government is not the solution to all problems, argued that it plays an essential part in promoting economic growth and ensuring fairness for various segments of the population. On the other was a challenger who, while recognizing the basic value of government, argued that its greatest goal was to get out of the way of a free people and unleash the American entrepreneurial spirit."

I'd argue that there was less than meets the eye in the debate to this contrast, and that precious little time was devoted to a genuine exploration of its implications. For starters, as Baker notes, both President Obama and Mitt Romney gave considerable ground on the issue--Obama by recognizing the limitations on government's effectiveness and Romney by saying that his anti-regulatory push doesn't mean that he hates all regulations.

What's more, as I observed while watching the debate, both candidates offered precious little substance on the subject of the role of government. Asked specifically about their philosophies, both candidates spent much of their time making the point that defending the country was job one of government, and then pivoted to standard positions on policy positions such as education.

Beyond that, scattered throughout the debate there were references to consolidating programs here and there, talk of achievements like cutting improper payments in Medicare, and a pro forma promise from Romney to cut the federal workforce through attrition. But there was no exploration of issues like transparency and openness in government, management of information technology, procurement policy or workforce planning.

You might argue that a presidential debate is never going to be the place for a substantive, wonkish seminar about such subjects. If so, I'd encourage you to go back and watch the parts devoted to taxes, which got very wonkish indeed. But in a debate that nominally featured an entire segment devoted to government's role, the discussion that ensued on that subject was pretty thin.