The Substance-Free Substance of the Debate

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By Josh Barro

Peter Suderman of Reason magazine tweeted last night that "This debate was wonkier and more substantive than any of the 2008 debates."

In a sense, he's right: President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney got into the weeds on tax policy and discussed the differences between their Medicare reform plans in detail. They even got a bit granular on financial regulation, a topic that risks making voters' eyes glaze over.

But while the debate was long on policy specifics, it provided no guidance on the three most important economic issues that the president will face in 2013.

1. The candidates didn't talk about the fiscal cliff, or its individual components -- the payroll tax holiday, extended unemployment benefits, the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, and sequestration.

2. They didn't talk about monetary policy.

3. They didn't talk about housing, except for a brief argument from Romney that slow implementation of Dodd-Frank regulations has hurt the mortgage market.

The candidates spent a lot of time talking about how important job creation is. But the three issues above will all have greater effects on job growth in 2013 or 2014 than tax reform, Medicare or any of the other subjects that got the extended treatment in last night's debate.

Partly, this reflects the press's obsession with the long-term deficit: Jim Lehrer wasted a question on this topic, which has already been discussed to death, when he could have pressed for new answers on the economic crisis we face today.

But the open format of the debate meant that either candidate could have easily made a pitch on these issues. Neither Romney nor Obama did so because neither has a credible plan to generate the job growth we need in the short term.

Romney keeps touting his promise to create 12 million jobs over four years: a fairly tepid pace of job growth that likely would not bring unemployment below 6 percent until 2017. That's not good enough coming out of a steep recession. We need a rebound like in 1984, when we created 3.9 million jobs in just one year, at a time when the labor force was about a third smaller than it is today.

Obama isn't any stronger on this point. Presumably, if he had any job- creation ideas that he could get through Congress, or enact without their help, he would be implementing them now.

Without anything to say about how they will put Americans back to work, the candidates are left talking about tax policy and Medicare. Yes, they were talking about substantive policy issues. But they don't deserve a whole lot of credit for it.

(Josh Barro is lead writer for the Ticker. E-mail him and follow him on Twitter.)

Read more breaking commentary from Josh Barro and other Bloomberg View columnists and editors at the Ticker.

-0- Oct/04/2012 13:23 GMT