Photo Caption: David Wilhelm makes a point during a 2009 debate he held with Richard Vedder. NEWS file photo.
Listening to a celebrity debate Tuesday evening on the presidential race, an audience member might have been forgiven the occasional bout of double vision. At times – actually, most of the time – the two debaters seemed to be talking about two different Barack Obamas and two different Mitt Romneys.
In the view of Ohio University distinguished economics professor Richard Vedder, incumbent Democrat Obama is "the most… fiscally irresponsible politician in our nation's history"; a champion of "European-style socialism"; and "the main reason our nation is in the worst shape in decades."
Republican challenger Romney, by contrast, is in Vedder's eyes a level-headed, responsible businessman, who wants to sensibly "tame the welfare state" and save the country from a looming debt Armageddon, and who in his tax policy – this is an accurate quote – "wants to emulate John F. Kennedy," by lowering tax rates and expanding the tax base.
To venture capitalist, OU alum and former Democratic National Committee chair David Wilhelm, on the other hand, Obama is the man who "brought this country back from the brink of collapse"; whose "economic agenda is placed right in the center of economic thinking"; who "has governed from the center of the country"; and who has a plan to reduce the deficit by some $4 trillion.
Romney, said Wilhelm, has "no real discernible point of view about anything"; if elected would launch "a frontal attack" on programs that help the poor and middle class; and wants to bring back the same "free-market fundamentalism" that brought on the biggest crash since the Great Depression.
Wilhelm and Vedder, two long-time friends who agreed to hold the debate as a benefit for the Ohio Valley Summer Theater, seemed to recognize that the skies in their respective worlds are very different colors.
"This isn't the America that I'm in," Vedder declared in mock amazement after Wilhelm's opening statement recounting what he sees as Obama's achievements. "He's talking about some other place."
Likewise, after an especially spirited Vedder tirade on how Obama has waged a "war on work" and recklessly dragged the nation to the very cliff-edge of ruin, it was Wilhelm's turn to observe, "I now am in the alternate universe."
This disparity was likewise on display in 2009, when Vedder and Wilhelm squared off at OU to debate Obama's performance for the amusement and edification of returning alums. The main difference back then was that Vedder was limited to disparaging the president; this time around, he could also sing the praises of his opponent (though he referred to him two or three times as George Romney, Mitt's dad).
The two men did agree without hesitation on one point Monday night: 2012 is a crucial election.
"I think the stakes are huge for this region," Wilhelm said. "This is an enormous, enormous election."
Vedder concurred, stating that he's voted in 12 prior presidential elections, and considers this one "easily the most consequential."
Beyond that, however, the debaters to some extent talked past each other. Wilhelm would doggedly list what he considers the president's achievements, including the extension of health care to 45 million more Americans; a combination of short-term stimulus and long-term growth strategies to nurse the economy back to health; and a careful approach to reducing the deficit with "a fair-minded combination of budget cuts and revenue increases."
Vedder would then wave these impatiently away, cite the generally rotten performance of the economy in the last four years, and portray Obama as a fomenter of class war, bent on wiping free enterprise off the U.S. map and replacing it with big-government programs the country can't possibly afford.
"Businesses and consumers alike are scared," he alleged, because of the president's "constant demonizing of success" and his innate dislike of capitalist freedoms.
"Barack Obama neither understands nor supports the American dream," Vedder insisted, and is "fixated on nationalizing our excellent health-care system." He also slammed Obama for his "so-called smart energy investments (that) have proven dumb," and on which "billions have been wasted." He also attacked Obama for raising taxes, saying, "the president is even taxing wheelchairs as a way to move us to health-care utopia… It's madness to raise taxes in the middle of a recession."
Wilhelm said the tax increases for "Obamacare" consist of a 3.9 percent hike in taxes on investment income and a 0.9 percent increase in Medicare costs to those making over $200,000. "That's it! That's it!" he said.
Though Obama purports to care for the poor, Vedder said, "the biggest losers under Obama have been the poor." He said the Gini coefficient, a measure of economic inequality, is higher now than it was under George W. Bush.
Wilhelm portrayed an economy in the midst of a fragile but strengthening recovery, which he suggested will be crushed if Romney gets his wish to "go back to the policies of yesteryear." As things stand now, he said, employment numbers are improving, and the country is seeing "a substantial, meaningful economic turnaround… We are on the verge of a stronger, more inclusive economy."