In the wake of last Tuesday's presidential debate, the pundits have been obsessed with Romney's zingers and Obama's deer-in-the-headlights performance. But the defining moment of the evening was provided by the debate stage itself.
When asked to define the role of the federal government, Romney said, "look behind us: the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence," pointing to the stage backdrop which featured excerpts from the founding documents. Fidelity to the principles of the Founding Fathers emerged as a key theme for Romney, but was utterly ignored by former ConLaw professor Obama. (I recently discussed these differing visions of the federal government on Fox & Friends, here.)
Unlike most presidential debates in recent memory, Tuesday's gave the candidates an opportunity to lay out their philosophy of government at length. With an entire segment (or "pod" to use host Jim Lehrer's oddly futuristic term) devoted to the proper role of a central government, each man had the chance to address the core issue of American politics; the very question that brought the delegates to Philadelphia in 1787.
To that question, the president said not a word -- not one -- about the Constitution: the document that creates and defines the federal government. The Founders devised a central government whose powers would be "few and defined," as James Madison put it. Instead of referring to the document which he took an oath to uphold, Mr. Obama said that the role of the federal government is limited only by its "capacity" -- a fancy way of saying that Washington can do anything within its brute power.
According to the president, federal power must be used to create "ladders" and "gateways" of opportunity, and "frameworks" for success; all of this suggesting that individuals and businesses cannot succeed without help from Capitol Hill. This makes perfect sense if you believe that entrepreneurs don't actually build their own businesses. But it makes no sense if you consult the enumerated powers of the federal government. Although Congress can regulate interstate commerce, it has no overarching power to impose its own concept of opportunity and success on a diverse nation.
The president then moved on to that familiar euphemism: the federal government must make "investments," i.e., it should spend like there's no tomorrow. Education not up to snuff? No problem: "let's hire another hundred thousand math and science teachers," said the president. And community colleges get a piece of the action, too. They should have vocational training programs, which, of course, "require" federal support. There's just one thing missing from this narrative: "education" is simply not within the federal government's constitutional powers.
When Lehrer turned to Mitt Romney, the contrast could not have been sharper. Not only did Romney refer explicitly to the Constitution, but he also explained that both individuals and states have "rights" against the federal government -- another concept overlooked by the president (in fact, Obama did not mention "rights" once in this debate on domestic policy).
Romney agreed that hiring more teachers is a good thing, but pointed out that "every school district, every state should make that decision on their own." He cleverly hijacked the president's vague references to "opportunity" and "success," making the point that these are matters of individual initiative. What government has to do, as the governor put it, is uphold the right of individuals "to pursue their dreams, and not to have the government substitute itself for the rights of free individuals."
In an earlier segment on health care, Romney took the president to task for "whisking aside the 10th Amendment" by imposing a national health care mandate. The 10th Amendment is the provision that reinforces the right of states to conduct their own affairs, except in those areas specifically delegated to the federal government. Mr. Obama did not see fit to address this concern.
At one point in the debate -- once he had regained something of his usual professorial manner -- the president intoned that the differences between the candidates are "instructive." You can say that again.