Obama-Romney debate focuses on style, less on healthcare

Although pundits viewed last night's presidential debate as noticeably light on healthcare, the two candidates did reinforce earlier assertions about conception coverage, Medicare and the Affordable Care Act.

Although Medicare, Medicaid, the Independent Payment Advisory Board and other healthcare issues dominated much of the first presidential debate and arguments at the vice presidential debate, the second Obama-Romney face-off focused more on energy, immigration and taxes, The Hill's Healthwatch reported.

Nevertheless, the candidates mentioned Medicare a total of 42 times, the healthcare law 20 times and Independent Payment Advisory Board six times, according to The Hill's Healthwatch.

Held as a town-hall forum at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., audience members didn't directly ask ACA-specific questions, although both candidates spoke to conception coverage in which President Barack Obama called it not a healthcare issue but "an economic issue for women."

Under the healthcare law, employers must provide coverage for birth control without copays, although there are exceptions for religious groups, such as churches, another Healthwatch article noted.

Mitt Romney said, "I don't believe employers should tell someone whether they could have contraceptive care or not. Every woman in America should have access to contraceptives." Nevertheless, the former Massachusetts governor has supported the Blunt Amendment, legislation to allow employers to refuse coverage for religious beliefs, and has opposed the healthcare law's mandate. Romney vowed to repeal the health law, which he referred to repeatedly as "Obamacare."

Obama also brought up the Republican candidate's proposal for partial privatization of Medicare. Designed by vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and endorsed by Romney, the "premium benefit," otherwise known as the "voucher program," would offer new Medicare beneficiaries a fixed subsidiary to opt for either the traditional Medicare program or a private plan of their choice.

Obama took a jab, stating, "George Bush didn't propose turning Medicare into a voucher" when an audience member asked about the difference between Romney and George W. Bush.

Under the town-hall format, voters got a glimpse into the candidates talking styles, which may carry more weight than their actual words and whether they are even true.

"People are hiring a leader, not a scientific expert ... or a wonk or know-it-all," Samuel Popkin, a UC San Diego political scientist, told the Los Angeles Times.

It's not that facts don't matter, per say, but debate style has been engrained in American memory. Remember Michael S. Dukakis' detachment, President George H.W. Bush's glances at his watch and Al Gore's sighing, as the LA Times noted? The debates showcase the candidates' expressions, communication and especially gaffes, targeting the undecided voters.

Calling it a "theatrical situation," Michael Lempert, a linguistic anthropologist at the University of Michigan, said the presidential campaign "says a lot about our culture that we pay so much attention to the clothing, gestures and hair styles of presidential candidates and to their performances."

Obama continues to lead with voters on healthcare, by eight points ahead of Romney, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll. On Medicare, the President leads with nine points ahead of the former Governor, down from pre-debate levels of 12 and 14, respectively, Reuters reported.

The third and final presidential debate is scheduled for Oct. 22 to be held at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., focused on foreign policy.

For more information:
- here's the Hill's HealthWatch blog post on healthcare references and the post on conception coverage
- read the Los Angeles Times article
- here's the U-Mich announcement
- see the Reuters article and poll

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