LONDON — In a campaign dominated by serious domestic policy concerns, perhaps it's no surprise the only person asking the presidential candidates about the greatest threat to global financial stability is a comedian.
Until Tonight Show host Jay Leno raised the European debt crisis with President Barack Obama last week, the Eurozone was almost completely absent from the presidential campaign. Indeed, the closest the candidates got to discussing the issue in any of the debates was Romney's admonition that the United States would end up like Spain -- or Greece -- if it doesn't trim its spending.
Perhaps it took a late-night jokester to finally talk about Europe because, well, it's complicated. The eurozone is a $17 trillion behemoth, the largest economic bloc in the world, whose members are struggling to solve a complex crisis across 27 countries and nearly as many different economic cultures. And the debt crisis consuming the United States' largest trading partner is arguably a much more immediate threat than Iran, Libyan terrorism, or any other foreign policy issue the candidates have discussed. What's more, while the two candidates tend to spar on style rather than substance when discussing Iran, al Qaeda, or Afghanistan, Obama and Mitt Romney genuinely disagree about how to fix the debt crisis. In Obama's view, austerity is part of the problem; in Romney's, it's part of the solution.
In the last year, Obama's Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has been in repeated contact with European officials, urging them to consider infusing struggling economies with government stimulus -- and not just impose German-led programs of austerity. And over the summer, when the European crisis was so acute that it threatened to derail the U.S. economy and the president's reelection bid, Obama surrogate Bill Clinton reshaped the administration's message toward Europe into a pointed political attack against Romney.
"Who would have ever thought that the Republicans who made a living for decades deriding 'old Europe' would embrace their economic policy?" Clinton said at a $40,000-a-plate fundraiser in June as he introduced Obama. "But that's what they've done. Their economic policy is austerity and unemployment."
Two weeks later, Romney economic advisor Glen Hubbard used a newspaper op-ed in Germany -- Europe's largest creditor -- to accuse Obama of "ignorance of the causes of the crisis." Romney understands that European governments needed to cut spending, he wrote, noting that the governor "advises a gradual fiscal consolidation for the U.S.: structural reform to stimulate growth."
The debate over Europe seems to echo perfectly the one over domestic economic policy, by far the most critical issue in this year's election. So why is neither campaign talking about the European debt crisis? (Indeed, a Romney spokeswoman declined to comment for this article and Obama campaign spokespeople ignored three requests for comment.) The answer, it seems, is that both sides benefit from not speaking about it at all.
Earlier this year, when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) went, hat in hand, to the richest countries in the world asking to double the size of an emergency fund for Europe, the United States refused to pony up. Brazil, Mexico, and India contributed to a $500 billion "second line of defense" fund, but Washington said it was helping in other ways that were "most effective for what Europe needs right now," as Geithner put it at the time.
European officials expressed some sympathy that the Obama administration -- struggling with its own economic crisis -- was in no political position to offer assistance publicly, though it continued pushing for solutions behind the scenes. And yet the underlying reality marked a clear turning point: America no longer had the finances to tell Europe what to do.
The European response was equally clear. "This remains a sovereign European problem and they certainly will not take any lectures about this, beyond what they've already had to listen to from Obama," Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and a former member of the Danish government, said in a phone interview.