Overseas political partisans genial in debate preview
Jim Black, founder and head of Germany4Obama, gives his opening remarks Monday during a debate at Frankfurt's English Theatre while his opponent, Tom Leiser, looks on. Black took heat for focusing his opening remarks on Republican candidate Mitt Romney rather than on his own candidate, while Leiser largely focused on Romney's policies. Matt Millham/Stars and Stripes
FRANKFURT, Germany — If Monday night’s meeting of Republican and Democratic surrogates at Frankfurt’s English Theatre is a reliable preview of the debates between President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, Wednesday’s showdown in Colorado may turn out to be a relatively tame affair.
But not even Thomas Leiser, the chairman of Republicans Abroad Germany who represented his party, thinks that’s likely.
“I think the whole thing is much too polarized, personally,” Leiser said afterward. “I blame that on extremists from either side. The Republicans have their very, very hard-core right-wing types, and the Democrats have the corresponding left-wing (types).”
Organized by the Newcomers Network and sponsored by the American-German Business Club and the Steuben Schurz Gesellschaft, the event drew about 250 expatriates and Germans from the area who watched a peaceful exchange between political moderates unencumbered by the weight of their party’s official platform.
Leiser, who said his comments were wholly his own, and his Democratic counterpart Jim Black, founder and head of Germany4Obama, offered moments of honesty, pragmatism and bipartisanship, openly agreeing on a handful of issues from government support of health care to entitlement reform.
Had either of the real candidates for president allowed such admissions, said debate attendee Abigail Paul, “it would have negated their ability to run for president.”
“Political candidates,” said Paul, an expatriate from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., “can’t say the same thing as their offshoots like Democrats or Republicans Abroad.”
Still, both surrogates largely stuck to their candidate’s latest talking points.
Leiser, who spoke first, focused much of his time instead on listing Romney’s goals for the next four years: ending regulations that hurt businesses, improving the economy and getting people back to work, though he offered no details about how Romney would accomplish those goals.
But he was candid when Paul asked him whether the government should guarantee health care for children.
“I don’t have the total answer,” Leister responded before telling the crowd that his brother recently suffered an “unfortunate mishap” and “Medicaid took over quite a bit of his medical bills.”
“So at least that part of it, the government stemmed the gap,” Leister said. “I personally am in favor of medical care for everyone, and I think there are ways to get that accomplished.”
Using a line Romney cribbed from former President Ronald Reagan, Leiser said, “When Americans go to vote, Americans will be asking themselves the same question they asked at the end of the Jimmy Carter administration: Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”
The answer, Leister said, is “a resounding ‘No.’ ”
Black devoted all but one minute of his 15 minutes of opening remarks to characterizations of Romney’s vision for the next four years rather than his own candidate.
Quoting from Romney’s well-known videotaped description of the 47 percent of Americans who pay no income taxes as being dependent on the government and believing that the government has a responsibility to care for them, Black came to their defense.
Many are seniors who paid into social security and are receiving entitlements they paid for, he said, and some are unemployed but want to work. And about 60 percent are employed but don’t make enough to pay income taxes, Black said. They do, however, pay payroll taxes, such as Social Security, he said.
“And in fact, payroll taxes amount to about 15.3 percent of income — more, by the way, than Mitt Romney paid in 2011.”
Romney’s 47 percent comment, Black said, “matters because this is a manifestation of a very standard Republican concept these days which is that society consists of two groups of people. It consists of the makers, and it consists of the takers.”
Then, in a moment unlikely to be repeated in tonight’s duel in Denver, Black added, “I absolutely don’t want to cast aspersions on Tom, on any Republican voter or on anybody who supports Mitt Romney. There’s lots of legitimate reasons people can support Mitt Romney without believing the things that I find objectionable.”
Asked later by Evansville, Indiana’s Melanie Gerlich about his decision to spend almost the entirety of his allotted opening to Romney, Black quipped that “if I had had 30 minutes, I would have done both sides.” In a more serious tone, he added that people already know Obama because he has a record as president.
“I’m not sure people realize exactly what it is that Mitt Romney’s put on the table, and I think it’s important for people to understand that.”
Afterward, Gerlich said “it remains to be seen” whether the debates between Obama and Romney will have a similarly cordial flavor.
“But I think, quite honestly, the American public really care very much about the economy,” she said. “And I personally, truly hope that the debates with the presidential candidates will really be on very strict issues, what their plans will be, what their policies will be and how the American public can really get themselves back on track.”