Presidential Debate One: Style Versus Substance

October 3rd met the country with the first presidential debate of the 2012 election season. Anticipation going into the evening in Colorado was extremely high, although both candidates were downplaying their forensic skills before they took to the actual stage.

Jim Lehrer, the moderator of the debate, announced that the format would be a loose one: there were predetermined sections about domestic policy that focused (almost exclusively) on the economy. Two minute statements would be allowed at the beginning of every section with open discussion following.

Before I discuss how the candidates performed, I want to make a statement about the debate format and its moderator: the format was abysmal and Lehrer should retire to the green pastures of PBS. It was awful. While the idea of a structured (but open) discussion between the two candidates is a nice one, both Romney and Obama completely controlled the pacing and content of the debate, constantly talking over and interrupting Lehrer, who was about as effective as a child trying to chime into an argument between his parents.

While the candidates should not be excused for their behavior towards the moderator, the moderator is still the one who is absolutely responsible for the debate. He unequivocally failed.

But — to the most important question of all! Who won the debate?
Here’s a hint: Nobody.

How can an individual win a debate that is not a debate at all? There are no points. There is no proper form of argument taking place. Contemporary “debates” in the political sphere are glorified campaign commercials. Talking points and obnoxious “zingers” are focused on with a heavy emphasis on repetition of key phrases. How many times did we hear the words “716 Billion,” “taxes,” “deficit,” or 5 Trillion” last night? Too many to count.

To “win” a modern debate, one must focus on established lines of dialogue and (unfortunately) act. Ever since Nixon lost to Kennedy in the first televised debate, appearance and decorum have come to mean almost as much as what is actually said.

So, then, how did they perform?

Barack Obama: Obama’s strategy during the first debate appeared to be one that focused on maintaining the status quo. He did not approach Romney with anything close to an aggressive nature — he remained his distanced, intellectual self. Early in the debate, he actually said “Listen to this; this is instructive.”

That alone should tell you about the tone with which he carried himself during the debate. While I am perfectly happy to listen to Professor Obama extol the virtues of Plan A or Plan B, it was not the correct strategy when facing an opponent who was so clearly attempting an aggressive political move (more on that in a bit).

The president stuck to his constant political message of “forward” and “middle-class” with a heavy focus on detail and statistics. It was substantive. It was also boring.

While numbers and details are vitally important during an election season (as can be seen from Romney’s complete lack of them), they are not effective or engaging when thrown into the faces in the audience who are not particularly looking for them. People want substance, but they want understandable substance. Barack Obama very much failed to deliver relate-able content.

From a factual perspective, the current president did fairly well. From FactCheck.org (see link for citations):

  • Obama again touted his “$4 trillion” deficit reduction plan, which includes $1 trillion from winding down wars that are coming to an end in any event.
  • Obama again said he’d raise taxes on upper-income persons only to the “rates that we had when Bill Clinton was president.” Actually, many high-income persons would pay more than they did then, because of new taxes in Obama’s health care law.
  • Obama said 5 million private-sector jobs had been created in the past 30 months. Perhaps so, but that counts jobs that the Bureau of Labor Statistics won’t add to the official monthly tallies until next year. For now, the official tally is a bit over 4.6 million.
  • Obama oversold his health care law, claiming that health care premiums have “gone up slower than any time in the last 50 years.” That’s true of health care spending, but not premiums. And the health care law had little to do with the slowdown in overall spending.

Mitt Romney: Romney came into the debate with a decidedly aggressive stance. He was almost always on the offensive, and his constant practice from the past week clearly shows through his performance. His demeanor was one of a confident man, and he was clearly primed to make a move against the common public perception of him as a weak individual.

His strategy, however, was a bit harder to pin down. Romney refused to be pinned down into any one stance or view on any given policy during the debate. When he did make unequivocal statements, they were statements of typical Republican policies that nobody asked a question about in the first place, like military spending and the role of the constitution.

When pressed for details about any of his plans, he avoided the question (perhaps intelligently). By not allowing himself to be bogged down in minutiae, he was able to rise above detail in order to embrace the meta-narrative of the debate: that Romney was not who he was being painted as. While this was a success in the eyes of Republicans and Romney fans, it was not a success from a rational standpoint.

Unfortunately for Romney, his stances from the debate do not appear to coincide with his political stances from the past year or so. They are almost entirely different. By embracing a .. fluid .. definition of his own platform, Romney was able to effectively seize the moment.

How was he, however, on the facts?
Not so good. From Politifact.org:

Romney sometimes came off as a serial exaggerator. He said “up to” 20 million might lose health insurance under the new law, citing a Congressional Budget Office study that actually put the likely number who would lose employer-sponsored coverage at between 3 million and 5 million. He said 23 million Americans are “out of work” when the actual number of jobless is much lower. He claimed half of all college grads this year can’t find work, when, in fact, an AP story said half either were jobless orunderemployed. And he again said Obama “cut” $716 billion from Medicare, a figure that actually reflects a 10-year target for slowing Medicare spending, which will continue to grow.

As for one of the most-repeated Romney talking points about Obama’s so-called “destruction” of Medicare:

Romney went on to say, “I want to take that $716 billion you’ve cut and put it back into Medicare.” But the fact is, the money isn’t being taken away from Medicare. Instead, Medicare would spend it, but over a longer period of time than was expected before the health care law. The law extends the solvency of the Medicare Part A trust fund.

And about jobs:

Romney overstated the number of unemployed Americans when he said that there were “23 million people out of work.” There were 12.5 million unemployed Americans in August, the most recent figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

So what does this all mean?
In my opinion, Mitt Romney performed better. Barack Obama had better things to say. Neither of them, however, did a spectacular job when the total picture is looked at. Romney will find increased support numbers out of this debate, I am sure, though I am not sure that it will make a difference in the long run.

The president will likely find no change in his numbers, as he played it about as safe as it can get. The lasting impression of this debate (as has been painted by the media) is that the gap between the candidates is closing. The cynical me views this as a tactic to encourage people to watch their programming.

The logical me says that it just doesn’t matter. People have already decided who they will vote for — this debate was just an exercise in controlled confusion and message transmission.

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One thought on “Presidential Debate One: Style Versus Substance

  1. cov238 says:

    I completely agree that Romney had a better performance, and that Obama had better things to say. I think that’s the best assessment that can be made regarding who “won.”

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