The article below is a product of the Harvard Political Review. Review articles and viewpoints expressed are written and edited exclusively by Review undergraduate students, not the staff of Harvard's Institute of Politics.
During last week’s vice presidential debate, moderator Martha Raddatz asked: “Tell me what role your religion has played in your own personal views on abortion. Please talk about how you came to that decision. Talk about how your religion played a part in that.” Vice President Joe Biden responded to the question masterfully, simultaneously noting his devout religious beliefs and his desire not to impose those views on “equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews.”
Unfortunately, this masterful point seems to have been one of the most memorable of the entire debate.
In 1992, campaign strategist James Carville coined a slight variation of the phrase “it’s the economy, stupid.” At that time, Carville was attempting to emphasize the importance of the struggling economy in then-candidate Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. Although originally intended for an internal audience of campaign workers, the phrase became a de facto slogan for the entire campaign.
Today, Carville’s phrase is more applicable than ever. As the United States still faces enormous deficits, a $16 trillion dollar debt, sluggish improvements in unemployment, and some of the slowest economic growth in recent memory, the aftermath of the Great Recession is and should be the centerpiece of this election. Unfortunately, Martha Raddatz’s questions distracted from this fact. As a result, this campaign’s one and only vice presidential debate was characterized much more by foreign policy and social issues than by jobs and the economy; only three of Raddatz’s eleven questions were economically inclined. This distracts from by far the most important issue facing our nation in this election.
In this election, those who believe that social issues and foreign policy are even close to the economy in importance simply don’t realize how dire our economic and fiscal straits truly are. Though less physical in character than an Al Qaeda attack or a nuclear-armed Iran, the threats facing our economy are as menacing to the continuity of our republic as any we’ve ever faced.
In fact, the threats to our economic standing endanger more than just jobs and living standards. They stand to destroy our power, influence, and respect on the world stage. If we don’t make fixing our economy and changing our fiscal outlook the most important issue in governance, complete economic, military, and social collapse is not an unrealistic consequence. To this point, Harvard historian Niall Ferguson has written: “Imperial falls are associated with fiscal crises: sharp imbalances between revenues and expenditures, and the mounting cost of servicing a mountain of public debt.”
Our disastrous economic and fiscal situation jeopardizes America’s well-being in a way that no other issue does. Yet our vice president’s most memorable contributions to this last debate concerned religion and bygone Supreme Court decisions. Abortion is only one example of the distracting issues in this election–gay marriage is another. Though as important a social issue as any, the debate on gay marriage was aptly characterized by Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels: “If we collapse fiscally and economically, it really won’t matter very much what legal status we conferred on gay cohabitation.”
Although a debate exclusively on domestic policy, our first presidential debate was fortunately much more focused on the economy. And the results were clear: Mitt Romney pulled off what many have called the clearest debate win in presidential campaign history. And Paul Ryan, who is much more inclined to discuss the policies of spending cuts, fiscal discipline, and economic improvement that have defined his approach to government, was obviously outside of his comfort zone in the vice presidential debate.
The idea: people care about the economy, and they want the candidate who’s more qualified to improve a dismal economic outlook, not the one who can give a better answer on abortion. In the upcoming weeks, let’s hope that both our candidates and our moderators can keep their minds on what’s really important in this election.
Hint: it’s the economy, stupid.
Photo Credit: Barack Obama