Faculty highlights key election issues at Engage the Debate
Published: Wednesday, October 17, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, October 17, 2012 08:10
The Office of the Provost last night hosted “Engage the Debate,” a faculty panel and community forum in Cabot Auditorium that previewed a live showing of the second presidential debate.
The event featured five Tufts faculty members who each gave fifteen−minute presentations on topics relevant to this year’s election, followed by a question and answer session with the audience.
Panelists included Dean for Academic Affairs in the School of Arts and Sciences James Glaser; Senior Lecturer and Director of the Community Health Program Edith Balbach; Professor of International Economic Affairs at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy Michael Klein; Associate Professor of Political Science Richard Eichenberg and Assistant Professor of Sociology Sarah Sobieraj.
Provost and Senior Vice President David Harris acted as the event’s moderator, introducing the forum as a non−partisan gathering intended to help listeners become more informed consumers of the presidential debate.
“Like all good professors, our job is to provide you with the tools to make your decisions and then get out of your way,” Harris said.
Glaser began the panel with a discussion about subtext and implicit issues in the election, such as issues of race, class and religion.
“Are there implicit issues of race that have come up in this campaign?” Glaser asked, noting that campaigns tap into people’s preconceptions in order to influence opinions on issues like welfare reform.
Welfare reform was introduced as a campaign issue this summer when Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney accused President Barack Obama of “a plan to gut welfare reform.”
Glaser framed this as an implicit issue of race, as studies have shown that welfare spending is negatively impacted by racial stereotypes.
Glaser also spoke briefly on religion, stating that religiosity, not religion, creates a divide in support for the candidates. He cited statistics showing that those who do not regularly attend church support Obama, while those who do support Romney.
Glaser concluded that despite these minor distinctions, election campaigns and debates ultimately consider issues on a broader level to help voters understand their choices.
“Campaigns are sledgehammers, they are not scalpels,” he said.
Balbach followed with a discussion on healthcare reform, as the Affordable Care Act (ACA), otherwise known as Obamacare, has become one of the larger sledgehammers in this season’s election.
“[Obama] was trying to solve a very difficult set of problems that somebody had to do,” Balbach said.
Cost, access and quality are the main considerations when legislating healthcare, and the United States has overspent and underperformed in all three, according to Balbach. The ACA is meant to address these problems, and, if it works, 95 percent of people will have insurance coverage within six years, she said.
Balbach closed with a breakdown of the purported $716 billion in savings from the ACA’s Medicare payment cuts.
“Is this cutting down on benefits for seniors?” she asked. “Well, you can frame it either way.”
Klein was tasked next with speaking on jobs and the economy.
In the interest of full disclosure, he informed the audience that he spent a year and a half working for the Obama administration in the Department of the Treasury.
“What you’re going to hear tonight in the debate is a lot of facts,” Klein said. “But facts without context aren’t very useful.”
Klein addressed concerns about weak employment levels following Obama’s economic stimulus package, noting that ,from a historical perspective, recovery has tended to be weaker in modern recessions.
“Is there something extra going on?” he asked, referring to the possibility of government overregulation.
He did not answer the question, instead encouraging the audience to think about economic context as they listened to the debate later that night.
“It should be entertaining and interesting,” Klein said,“[but] I’m not sure that it’ll be illuminating.”
As an expert on international relations and foreign policy, Eichenberg began his presentation by acknowledging that this election has focused less on foreign policy issues. He then gave a brief overview of each candidate’s foreign policy platform.
Sobieraj concluded the panel with a presentation on media management and how campaigns seek to influence media coverage of the debates.
An estimated 62.7 million people watched the first presidential debate, hitting a 32−year record in gross ratings.
Sobieraj speculated that such excitement is due to an impression that debates, unlike speeches made at party conferences, provide a relatively free and open space for the public to connect with the candidates.
Sobieraj then described the process by which each campaign gears up for the debates, an undertaking which sometimes includes 200 pages of preparation questions.
“Just because they can’t script the whole thing doesn’t mean they don’t try really, really hard,” she said.
Sobieraj concluded with a suggestion to call it a dual press conference rather than a debate.
“[Debate] sounds a little more lively and undermanaged than it actually is,” she said.
The faculty panel then fielded questions from the audience, which included doubts as to whether debates even mattered in changing peoples’ minds.
“The truth is, we watch these debates through our own lenses,” Harris said, adding that a focus on rallying for a large turnout can be more important than changing minds.
Harris closed by reminding the audience that many elections, not just the presidential election, will occur on Nov. 6.