With the presidential election just a few days away, we at Nation's Restaurant News decided to present this story from the issue that publishes Monday. It covers a debate we coordinated at our MUFSO conference specifically to help restaurateurs decide who'd be better for their businesses, John McCain or Barack Obama. It's being posted here in hopes of providing the industry with fodder for thought for those members who are still conducting their own internal debate as to which contender should get their vote (and if you want to practice, take our poll to the right).
Washington – A MUFSO debate between stand-ins for the U.S. presidential candidates proved as contentious as the actual face-offs between Barack Obama and John McCain, with the participants disagreeing on everything from Sarah Palin’s competency to what makes a good Oval Office occupant.
The two-person teams squabbled over such issues as which candidate offered the best prospects for small businesses; how much the financial crisis should be weighed in picking the next president; which contender was more of a capitalist; which candidate would surround himself with better people; and, in a strange twist, which of the two had mentioned Warren Buffett first during a televised debate.
Both sides included a one-time restaurant company leader who had sold his charge in the last few years: former Cold Stone Creamery CEO and chairman Doug Ducey, representing McCain, and Phil Hickey, who held the same posts at former LongHorn Steakhouse parent Rare Hospitality, speaking on behalf of Obama. Each was teamed with someone with a legal background. Melissa Rothring, the former executive vice president of legal affairs for current Cold Stone owner Kahala Corp., rounded out Team McCain. Cathy Hampton, the former general counsel of Rare and now a full-time volunteer in Obama’s campaign, joined Hickey.
Both sides offered assertions as to how the winner might affect the restaurant industry. The only concurrence seemed to come on the overarching question of which side had the best candidate. Both teams readily insisted they did.
Team McCain portrayed their candidate as the better capitalist, leader, commander in chief, decision-maker and independent thinker. “This guy’s a survivor, he’s a leader, and he’s always been mission-driven,” said Ducey, a resident of Arizona, which McCain represents in the Senate.
Teammate Rothring acknowledged that she had been drawn to McCain “by gut instinct.” But, in preparation for the debate, “I went to a website and looked up the issues. The common thread I saw with McCain is that he is a capitalist.”
She lauded the Republican candidate as someone who was likely to slice corporate taxes, cut the estate tax and lower the exemption on that industry-hated measure, push for tort reform, and seek a permanent research and development credit. All of those measures are favored by the restaurant industry.
In contrast, she asserted, Obama would push for a $9.15 minimum wage, unionization, paid sick leave, a rise in corporate taxes and the real estate tax, and a health care proposal that would cost “10 percent of your payroll.”
Team Obama’s Hampton challenged those assertions. “Just this weekend Sens. Obama and [vice presidential candidate Joe] Biden revealed their plans for small businesses,” she calmly retorted. “What they’ve done in their plan is direct money to help small businesses. One thing is to take away — completely eliminate — capital gains taxes for investing in small businesses.” She also cited a $3,000 tax credit for each new full-time employee a small business hires during the next two years.
“We’re talking tax cuts for 95 percent of hardworking families in America, and tax cuts for 98 percent of small businesses,” Hampton said.
Hickey professed to “take it up to the taller trees,” where he could see a bigger picture. Explaining that he’s a registered Republican who has contributed more than $1 million to industry lobbying and campaign efforts, he recounted that he was a staunch McCain supporter in the 2000 campaign.
Yet, he continued, the country has had eight years under a Republican Administration, “which was voted for by most of us. Let me ask you, how are things today? How’s your business? How’s that working for you?” His rhetorical questions came as the industry was contending with a pronounced downturn in sales, profits and traffic.
“My sense is, an Obama presidency would deal with bigger issues that would ultimately help our businesses,” Hickey said.
He cited such pressing concerns as the energy situation and the high gasoline prices that have resulted. “The leadership on that has been lacking,” he said. “As a result, it’s come out of control.”
Overall, he said, “The underpinnings of the economy are very uncertain. Who do you trust to lead for the next four years in the U.S. economy? Who do you trust to fix this?”
One of the constant points of contention during the hour debate was how much the economic crises should factor into a voter’s choice of candidate. The session was conducted after one of the worst weeks Wall Street had ever seen, and a day after the Bush Administration disclosed plans to buy stakes in nine banks as a recovery measure.
“Two years ago, we were all pretty happy with the economy. The issue was Iraq,” Ducey said. The economy “is unraveling, but it’s really all about housing. Once we get through the housing part of it, what will we have?”
He suggested, “People may go back to, ‘What are these issues?’ rather than, ‘What are these crises of the moment?’”
Team Obama would have no part of that. “I really wish we could turn the page on the economy, but it’s very hard to do that,” Hampton said.
Hickey asserted that the economy was an attitude-changer, not a short-term distraction. “There’s a strange dynamic in this room, in that there are a number of Republicans,” he said. “My support for Obama started out in the minority. But other people have come up to me and said, ‘I just can’t go there. I just can’t vote for McCain.’”
The debate was moderated by Nation’s Restaurant News editor Ellen Koteff.