The issues they won't talk about

The campaign-season focus on disagreements between the two presidential candidates means that vast areas of agreement don't get examined, argues Eric Ruder.

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama at their first presidential debate (University of Denver)

IT SEEMS that most everyone agrees on at least one point about last week's presidential debate: Mitt Romney walloped Barack Obama.

The whole of the punditocracy and strategists of both parties generally converged on a single story line: A listless Obama failed to challenge Romney in any serious way, while Romney was variously described as "energetic," "engaged" and "focused."

Actually, Obama wasn't the only one who lost the debate. Moderator Jim Lehrer failed to maintain even a semblance of control over the candidates, who repeatedly spoke past their allotted time. In the words of Saturday Night Live "news" anchor Seth Meyers, Lehrer was "like a ghost visiting a scene from his past life...helplessly waving his arms to get their attention."

Lehrer was perhaps distracted by what he seemed to take as his other "mission" during the debate. On several occasions, he tried--without much success--to pinpoint the differences between the candidates on specific issues.

Lehrer's difficulties throw a reality of U.S. politics into sharp relief, though you won't hear it talked about on the cable TV political shows. It's true nonetheless: despite all the partisan wrangling, point-scoring and spin-doctoring, the candidates' disagreements about various issues are dwarfed by the many issues where they agree--and by the many fundamental principles about how to manage American capitalism that they take as starting assumptions and therefore don't even discuss.

This may be the most problematic issue of all for Barack Obama: his ability to criticize Romney is constrained by the dismal record of his last four years in office.

In fact, Lehrer's probing on a number of occasions demonstrated precisely this: On Social Security, Obama acknowledged that he and Romney basically agree. While Romney criticized "Obamacare," Obama pointed out that Romney instituted a similar plan to his health care law as governor of Massachusetts. On regulating Wall Street, Obama said he supported the Dodd-Frank legislation to reform the financial sector, while Romney said he would repeal Dodd-Frank, but added, "[T]here are some parts of Dodd-Frank that make all the sense in the world."

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EVEN ON the most pressing issue for most voters--jobs and the economy--the candidates found themselves bickering over particulars, but agreeing on the overall approach.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, the U.S. needs to create more than 9 million new jobs to make up for all the layoffs during the Great Recession and to provide openings for people entering the workforce for the first time. But neither candidate has proposed anything remotely bold enough to make a dent in the jobs crisis.

A federal jobs program could put millions of people to work. Given America's crumbling infrastructure, the crisis of the ailing public school system and the reductions in social services, it wouldn't be difficult to find useful projects for people to work on.

However, the closest that either candidate came to suggesting that the federal government do anything to address the jobs crisis was Obama's proposal to hire 100,000 new math and science teachers. That amounts to about 1 percent of the number of jobs needed to return the employment to 2007 levels.

In fact, during Obama's time in office, the public sector has a net decline of around 600,000 jobs--a stark contrast from the first few years of the George W. Bush administration, during which the public sector expanded by about 800,000 jobs.

On the subject of the economy, Obama did offer that he agreed with Romney on the importance of reducing the corporate tax rate--as if the U.S. places an onerous tax burden on corporations, and that's why companies aren't hiring. The truth is precisely the reverse: Corporate America is enjoying low tax rates, both in historical terms and by comparison to other industrialized countries.

As Paul Buckheit wrote in a Common Dreams article about the "job creator" fraud:

While corporate profits have doubled to $1.9 trillion in less than 10 years, the corporate income tax rate, which for 30 years hovered around the 20-25 percent level, suddenly dropped to 10 percent after the recession. The biggest firms basically said, "We're not paying." That's a half trillion dollars a year unpaid by the very companies who have successfully convinced much of America that their tax rates are too high.

The tax they actually pay is very low relative to other countries. U.S. corporations paid a smaller rate of income taxes than all but two of the OECD countries analyzed by the Office of Management and Budget and the Census Bureau. A Treasury report agreed, noting that the tax/GDP rate for U.S. companies was 35 percent lower than the OECD average from 2000 to 2005.

Corporations even pay less than low-wage American workers. On their 2011 profits of $1.97 trillion, corporations paid $181 billion in federal income taxes (9 percent) and $40 billion in state income taxes (2 percent), for a total income tax burden of 11 percent. The poorest 20 percent of American citizens pay 17.4 percent in federal, state and local taxes.

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FOR NEARLY four decades, neoliberalism has reigned in the U.S. and around most of the world. The principles of free markets, deregulation, privatization and government budget-cutting have become the unchallenged assumptions guiding both Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

While Mitt Romney and the private equity firm he co-founded, Bain Capital, personify the cutthroat nature of capitalism--not to mention the vast personal wealth of those who run it--Obama has been an ardent defender of the same neoliberal principles. Thus, the health care law that the Obama administration touts as its chief achievement of four years in the White House not only accepts the dominant position of private insurers, but it ensures that their profits will increase enormously.

The list of other issues where Obama and Romney share fundamental agreement--and which therefore are never debated--is far longer than you'd ever guess from the mainstream media coverage of the campaign.

-- Education: Obama's Race to the Top law is the embodiment of the corporate approach to education "reform"--the legislation promises more education funding for the states, but only if they eliminate caps on charter schools that steal money from public schools and clear the way for merit pay and teacher evaluation based on testing.

This is the exactly the agenda that the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike against in September. Romney didn't hesitate, of course, to express his support for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama's former chief of staff, in his war against Chicago teachers.

-- Civil liberties: Obama has continued and even accelerated the Bush administration's assault on civil liberties--most notoriously with the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act that allows the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens in violation of basic constitutional rights.

But this is only the most open violation of our rights. The Obama administration has also ruthlessly pursued the war on Arab and Muslim communities in the U.S.; carried out raids on antiwar and social justice activists; and prosecuted more whistle-blowers than any White House in history. You can be sure that Romney won't be raising his voice in defense of any of these targets of Obama's Department of Injustice.

-- Austerity budgets: During the debate, Obama explained that his administration had cut $1 trillion from domestic discretionary spending. "That's the largest cut in the discretionary domestic budget since Dwight Eisenhower," he said. And then he promised to seek another $4 trillion worth of cuts in his second term.

Here, too, both candidates agree on the need for "austerity"--though the real issue is not that the U.S. is spending too much money, but rather that it is failing to collect enough revenue--from corporations and the 1 percent.

-- Foreign policy: Sarah Palin will put solar panels on her house before either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney admit that one critical way to address the U.S. budget deficit is to cut military spending. Throughout the summer and fall, Obama and Romney took part in a dangerous escalation of rhetoric against Iran, something that will likely continue through November. When the two candidates get together to debate foreign policy on October 16, expect Obama to repeatedly remind viewers that Osama bin Laden was assassinated on his orders and that he ordered an escalation of the war in Afghanistan.

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IT'S IMPORTANT to remember all this as the debates continue, with Joe Biden and Paul Ryan up on October 11, and Romney and Obama returning to the stage the following week.

It's not that Romney and Obama are exactly the same, but that the emphasis on their differences ends up overshadowing the many ways in which they are similar. The way the media covers the campaign feeds into this: the relentless focus on who's winning and who's losing; the incremental swings in polling numbers; the minute-by-minute movements of the candidates; and latest ad campaigns, as if the ads weren't enough themselves.

In these final weeks, both candidates and both parties will spend hundreds of millions on focus groups, polls and marketing strategies to win votes. They are both compelled to motivate their supporters to get out to the polls.

But all this serves to obscure the political issues that ought to be at stake in the election. Those of us who care about democracy and justice need to see the bigger picture--that the rhetoric of the candidates hides a fundamental agreement on many issues, which ultimately serve the rulers of U.S. society.