Values and ethics issues of the presidential debate

Oct 04, 2012

President Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney debated for the first time last night.

As pundits, politicos and the general public parse their statements, what were your thoughts on how they addressed values and ethics?

When talking about the values behind Social Security and Medicare, President Obama described his grandparents, who helped raised him, relied on those programs: "My grandmother died three days before I was elected president. And she was fiercely independent. She worked her way up, only had a high school education, started as a secretary, ended up being the vice president of a local bank. And she ended up living alone by choice. And the reason she could be independent was because of Social Security and Medicare. She had worked all her life, put in this money, and understood that there was a basic guarantee, a floor under which she could not go. And that's the perspective I bring when I think about what's called entitlements. You know, the name itself implies some sense of dependency on the part of these folks. These are folks who've worked hard, like my grandmother, and there are millions of people out there who are counting on this."

When talking about the federal debt, Romney said: "It's a critical issue. I think it's not just an economic issue, I think it's a moral issue. I think it's, frankly, not moral for my generation to keep spending massively more than we take in, knowing those burdens are going to be passed on to the next generation and they're going to be paying the interest and the principal all their lives.

Did the candidates address values and ethics well, or sidestep the ones most on your mind and most important to the nation?

Brad Hirschfield will live chat with readers at 1 p.m. ET about this topic.

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Forget who won the debate!  What did you learn from or about the candidates last night? 

What about the fact that each of the candidate made the claim that money and how we spend it, are moral issues?  Do you agree with them?


What about the definition of fairness which each of the candidates uses?  What other values were surfaced in last night's debate, and where do you stand on those issues?  After all, the values, more than any one policy, are really what shape any president's time in office.


Let's Go!

Romney came across as a rude bully to me, which is not the kind of values or ethics I look for in a president.

The most important part of your answer are the two words "to me", and I so appreciate that you included them!  I assume that by doing so, you understand that he did not come off that way to many, if not most, other people. 


My guess is that you pretty much thought of him that way already, or you would not have experienced his performance that ay last night.  My question is what is it that he did to provoke your response, especially as the President consumed almost 15% more speaking time?!

In the debate, Romney did a much better job of addressing the ethical issues of taking care of the old and poor and of not shifting the burden of government from the rich to the poor and middle class; however, these positions are at odds with both reality and the clear statements he has made about cutting Medicaid and domestic spending -- that is, the safety net, and of massive cuts to taxes for the rich. Does this compound the ethical problems of his long-standing positions with deception about those positions?

Let's go slow.  You equate difference (assuming that there was any) with deception.  Why do you do that? 


In fact, that leads to a larger question that has been on my mind since David Axelrod and other senior advisors to the President's campaign have been accusing Gov. Romney of lying last night.  He may be wrong, at least as far as they are concerned, about both his policies and teh claims he made last night, but why does being wrong immediately become a matter of lying?  Can't someone simply be wrong anymore?


Also, when you point to the supposed inconsistencies among Mr. Romney's various statements, to what are you comparing them?  Are you limiting them to this campaign?  To his record as Gov of MA?  It's not that I am defending Romney, as much as suggesting that the hunt for inconsistancies has become a substitute for thinking about what the some of all of a candidate's remarks tell us about their thinking as a whole.  It seems to me that more wholisitc approach gives a more accurate picture oh how whoever takes office will actually govern. 

One day Social Security is going to go bankrupt and the government will say "Sorry, you're not getting the benefits you expected". Should I feel sorry for the people have paid in? In some sense, our SS contributions are really a stealth tax for running America, so why should I expect money back? I don't expect to get back any of the non-stealth taxes I've paid.

You should expect to get money back, because it was on that basis that you paid it in.  Perhaps it should not be so, but SS as it stands now is a forced savings plan and while the financing of it typically uses today's dollars to pay yesterday's contributors, the money you put in is meant to be their for you.


Also, if you really feel as you do, you can certainly improve the financial health of teh system, however incrementally, by not taking your promised share when the time comes.  One wonders though if you would be so bold if the dollars you would otherwise get from SS were all that stood between you and hunger or homelessness...

Is simply being polite no longer a moral value? I was annoyed by the way Romney walked all over Lehrer at the outset of the "debate". Romney was more energized, true, but was it ethical? Does that matter?

I don;t know if politeness is a moral value in and off itself, but like you, I DO think it matters, and not just because it's nice.  I think that one's committment to leaving space for others to speak and participate is at least one sign of their regard for others and their value.


That said, it was the President who regularly used more than his fair sahre of the alotted time!  For a man so interested in the concept of fairness, struck me as odd.  Do I think he should therefore be branded a hypocrit?  Of course NOT! 


It's a debate and each candidate tried to maximize their impact.  The president did it by consuming more air time, and Gov. Romney did so by speaking more often.  At worst, it was a wash -- at least from an ethics of participation standpoint.

Since the way we allocate money is an expression of our priorities and values I believe Romney and Obama were correct to claim that how we spend our money as a society is a moral issue.

And we agree 100%!  Of course $ is a moral issue.  That's waht it so powerful when Gov. Romney declared it immoral to keep growing our national debt, and passing more and more deficit spending, let alone the ethical issue of then handing those issues to our children and grandchildren.


Of course, that is also what made it so powerful when the President declared that when he allocates money in a budget, it is not simply to create a job or push for the growth of a specific industry, but to help realize a specific vision for our nation, for it's security and for the security of it's citizens.


Once can debate the policies for whci the two men advocated, but they should be congratulated for reminding the nation that values and spending are closely related -- the one mirroring the other.  That is a lesson which we can all take to heart, whatever our politics.  It will create greater coherence and allignment in our lives and in our bank accounts! 

Rabbi Hirschfied, you address the Republican nominee by just his last name, Romney, and not Governor Romney. How come?

Frankly, if I did so, it's only because I am typing quickly.  I think, if you read more carefully, and beyong hunting for a bias, as your questions seems to indicate, you will see that I sometimes use titles of office, sometimes not, and sometimes use "Mr."


Whatever one thinks about the two candidates, it seems to me that each deserves genuine respect for having made real contributions  to the country and for haivng done so with great integrity and honesty.


Hope that clears things up for you.  thanks for asking.

If Baby Boomers are taking all of the money, I ask what happened to the money they put in? Baby Boomers paid SS for 47 years. There should be plenty of money and if not where did it go. If I save money for 47 years and did not touch it according to financial planners I should be rolling in the dough. My grandparents born 1900 were farmers and did not have Social Security. In his 60s, he got a minimum wage job and worked enough quarters to get Social Security. If it had not been for Social Security, he and my grandmother would have been destitute. In his 60s and 70s, he could not work his small farm. Their children should have supported them some would say. However, adult children cannot give money that they do not have. Another relative retired making $3.35 an hour as her top pay. Social Security is her only income.This is the real world for people.

Teh second half of your comment answered your initial question!  Because the system is meant to keep people from living in abject poverty, and often those who contributed were unable to make enough to assure that outcome, money often gets used faster than it comes in.  Also, there are demographic realities that create pressure on the availability of money in the SS system.


All told, you have to decide is SS simply a publically manged personal savings plan in which each person's money is held for them, or is it a forced savings plan for the American public in which we balance both the obligation to give you back at the end of your life in a way that relates to what you put in, but also honors the fact that nobody should live out their old age without the dignity of food, shelter and medicine, especially if they worked their entire lives.

I think that taxing and spending are very much moral issues in one over arching manner. I posit it is moral for a group of people to vote to tax themselves and spend that money how they see fit. Thus the example Romney used of people today using deficit spending which saddle future generations seems a valid example of an immoral policy that both parties have engaged in. Social security is a little bit different. SS is set up to transfer money from young, poorer people to older, wealthier people. That creates two potentially immoral situations. 1. transfer of money from the poor to the richer. 2. People who paid into SS throughout their lives at a rate of about 10 workers per retiree now expect todays worker to fully fund their SS at a rate of about 3 workers per retiree. The demographics make the payments immoral for todays workers.

Your assessment of the very real ethical problems created by the outsized spending of both parties, at least in recent years, is spot on.  Some of your claims about social security taking money from the poor to give to the rich however, is simply wrong.  Your concern about the demographic challenges we face are correct, and they are what drive people like Gov. Romney to suggest more agressive responses to the challenge.  To be fair, the President has also been open to many such responses but has been consistently hamstrung by his own party's leadership from taking action.

I have seen many comments from people who thought that Romney unfairly dominated the debate, yet he spoke for 4 minutes less than Obama. How did that happen?

the you have also seen my comments noticing the same thing, and even explaining that each candidate tried to dominate the conversation in their own way -- GR by inserting himself more agressively into the conversation, and PO by taking up more than his share of the air.


Perhaps most interesting are the two following things:

1.  Viewers tend to see what is objectionable in the behavior of the candidate they oppose.  while not exaclty surprising, the more ethical form of critique is to begin with that whcih is closest to one's self.


2.  Each candidate's approach mirrors their larger value set when it comes to government and to the nation as a whole.  GR "pulled himself up by his own bootstraps" even if it wasn't always so smooth to do so, and PO assumed he was entitled to more even if the rules said otherwise.  Interesting, no?

It's just that each has a different perspective on caring for this country. I have to say that the Pres. focuses way too much on social programs, As a small business person, if I have to implement the provisions of Obamacare, I will have to lay off some of my employees in order to compensate. So the Pres. doesn't see the immoral costs of his policies. And he has a moral obligation to discuss the unemployment that will arise from his healthcare program.

I tend to agree with you, especially as you started your comment by reminding us that ech candidates cares deeply about the country.  That should be obvious, but it's not, and I think you for reminding us!


You are certainly correct that the President often avoids that very real costs that come with his approach, but so does Gov. Romney.  One of the biggest ethical issues for me in last night's debate, and in this election as a whole, is that neither candidate admits the very real costs of what they want to do.  Nothing is free, and pretending it is, is itself unwise, if not unethical.

Money paid into SS is not reserved in account for each payer. The tax money is used to pay for todays retirees. Some people may incorrectly think that the money is theirs, but that does not mean policy should be guided by incorrect thinking. It would be immoral to base a policy decision on someone 's innaccuracies.

You are correct, sort of.  No, the money is not, as I have already written, in a personal account for any American worker.  SS security is not personal that way.  It is however covenental.  It represents a bond of trust between workers today, workers tomorrow, workers yesterday, and teh government under which they all live.  Skipping over that fact too easily is exactly what degrades trust in public institutions necessary for the common good. 

The public and private elements of so much of our lives are much more intertwined than the most vocal proponants of either party are willing to admit.  One is willing to bet the farm on the private and the other makes as big a bet on the public.  Neither is correct, even though each position plays to their respective bases.

What we call a 'debate' these days is not really what a debate is. They are some kind of bizarre political commercial unfolding in real-time. Very little of substance is debated. Having said that, Romney had his tactics down perfectly. He was able to come across wth a fatherly "you tried son but you failed' demeaner bordering on being an a-hole about it but not quite/often crossing the line. On the issues he managed to say kind things about all the popular parts of Obama's policies without really saying much specifically that spit in the face of his base (although he came close). Somehow he came across as know what he was talking about without really saying anything and without any offered proof. As far as values, Romney confirmed that his main value is getting elected.

Actually last night was quite substantive, but based on your comments, I am guessing that the candidate you support did not come out as you would have hoped so you denigrate the whole process.


In fact, each candidate made strong claims about the values which animate them, and how they see those values as related to the policies for which they advocate.  Ironically, I suspect that each may have done themselves some harm with different portions of the electorate by having done so.


The President made a pretty solid case for his deep committment to the role of gov't planning and funding initiatives in creating a more secure, competitive, and compassionate America.  I think that for those who want him positioned more squarely in the politcal center, that will be frustrating.


Gov. Romney spoke pretty eloquently about the necessity of public-private cooperation on a variety of issues including the economy, education and healthcare.  In doing so, he sounded more like the man who sucessfully governed MA than the candidate who spoke durring the Republican debates.  That will probbaly frsutrate those on the far right of his own party.


Ultimately, I think that each should be congratulated for sharing their vision of America and how they each want to get us there.

There are a ton more comments and questions to address, but we are about out of time.


Thanks, as always, for the intelligence and passion which you bring to this weekly conversation.  Don;t forget that we can continue if you find me on facebook or follow me on twitter @bradhirschfield.


'Til next week,


In This Chat
Brad Hirschfield
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is an author, radio and TV talk show host, and President of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His On Faith blog, For God's Sake, explores the uses and abuses of religion in politics and pop culture. He wrote "You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism." Named as one of the nation's 50 most influential rabbis in Newsweek, and one of the top 30 "Preachers and Teachers" by, he is the creator of the popular series, Building Bridges, airing on Bridges TV, and co-host of the weekly radio show, Hirschfield and Kula: Intelligent Talk Radio. For more information see
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