After the first Obama/Romney debate I wrote a piece for CSBJ arguing that Obama lost the debate big time, and that his sorry performance might cost him the presidency. My son Sam, an organic farmer in central Maine, didn’t agree. Here are some excerpts from our email exchange.
If after reading them you think that Sam is a lot smarter than his Dad – you’re right.
Sam to John, 10/09/12
You may remember I was a pre-professional debater once upon a time. Now, I watched the whole debate and then took notes on some of it when I listened to the rebroadcast, and believe you me, Mitt lost big time. Slowly and clearly discussing the issue with fact based reasoning is not a losing strategy.
It occurs to me that the media’s reaction is a fascinating study in groupthink. They’ve collectively decided that the proper lens to view the debate is the low-information voter, deciding victory based on cargo cult reasoning.
Remember the cargo cults? They built bamboo towers and bamboo headsets and banana leaf runways and expected that to bring the planes. Gesticulating like a man with command of the topic at hand, making up facts up as it suits you and saying things like, “There are six other studies that looked at the study you describe and say it’s completely wrong. I saw a study that came out today that said you’re going to raise taxes by 3(,000 dollars) to $4,000 on — on middle-income families. There are all these studies out there.” Really? Because I read a lot, and the only study I’ve heard about is the one the President is talking about. What was Ryan’s answer to that study? The math is too complicated for the simple people to understand. Really?
The media’s mad because they feel like half of them could have left Romney in tears and so could have the President.
Is that what we want? That’s the kind of guy we want with his finger in the button? Really?
John to Sam, 10/11/12
Presidential debates are different. The media, and I suspect most of the TV audience, don’t much care whether the candidates are peddling factoids or facts. They want to see command presence, someone whose affect says “leader.”
During the 2008 campaign, Obama had command presence. I covered an event at CC a month ago, and he was just as forceful and charismatic as he was four years ago. I was stunned and dismayed by his TV performance. He seemed disengaged and perfunctory, just going through the motions. You’re right that he won the debate, but he lost the dog show.
At Westminster, it’s all about appearance and behavior. No one care if your dog is smart – he just has to be superbly trained, able to pose and trot. His coat has to look like Romney’s $5,000 suit (my guess), or Romney’s perfect hair. If you want a smart dog, get a mutt.
My friend Jeff Crank, who qualifies as a crazed Repub (he’s the regional director of Americans for Prosperity) and is an experienced debater, thinks he knows why Obama seemed so out of sorts.
“It’s really hard to debate someone you violently dislike,” he said (I didn’t take notes, so this is from memory). “You find it hard to look them in the eye, you grimace, you can’t believe how stupid they are, you feel dirty just being on the same stage. So you lose your edge, you stare at the podium, and you try not to descend to their level – and that’s what happened to Obama.”
Sam to John, 10/12/12
All good points, particularly about Obama’s distaste for Romney. If I were in his position I’d feel that way — Romney’s not in his league and he’s not approaching the debate in an intellectually honest way.
But you, member of the media, perfectly illustrate my point. Why are presidential debates different? Why do the media, who I imagine are generally smart enough to see what happened, insist on the “low information voter” lens. Why can’t they report their perspective?
Remember that high school debate was divided into two types: Policy and Lincoln Douglas. The former’s content is eponymous, but it’s instructive to remember that Lincoln and Douglas were debating an historic moral question: slavery. It occurs to me that both debates are a strange hybrid. Obama and Biden (mostly) came to debate policy and Romney and Ryan signed up for LD. I would have liked to see two possible debates. All parties could have agreed that, for example, social insurance is a necessary policy, so let’s debate the best algorithm for running the program. Or we could have the moral debate of whether SS is philosophically supportable. Instead we get RR pretending they support the policy, and then offering up poisoned solutions. Throw in scientific illiteracy and you have a lot of nonsense.
It brings to mind Marcus Drusus, the Mitt Romney of the late Roman Republic. His strategy to defeat the populist, reform-minded Caius Marius was to promise more than Marius, and once he won, he simply broke all his promises.