The Great Debate
Things get weird with a donkey and an elephant
By the end of this first tumultuous presidential debate, one thing became clear: if you combined President Obama’s ears with Mitt Romney’s brow line, you would have the missing link in evolution. Seriously. That’s about the best I can come up with for a “What I Learned” moment. I’ve never heard or seen two sides so unapologetically and incoherently stick to different interpretations of the truth. I’ll try to unravel this as best I can, but if the article descends into incoherent letters that’s just my brain tapping out in a massive stroke.
The thing started off nicely enough: Jim Lehrer gave us a pleasant introduction to the orderly proceedings that he expected to follow, two millionaires walked on stage and shook hands and showed their teeth in smiles, and just as Fox News started to declare Romney the winner, President Obama began answering the first question. From there it all descended into anarchy. Eight minutes past the imaginary “end” of this first 15-minute segment I stopped watching the clock. It was around this time that I also considered: taking my own life, getting “into” heroin, joining a cult, and voting for Hugo Chavez. My “journalistic” side desperately wants to give the blow-by-blow of the whole affair, but I’m not sure I have the constitution for reliving it. Instead, allow me to paint you the broad-stroke picture of the debate as a whole. My color of choice will be poop-brown.
In his better moments during the debate, Mitt Romney comes across as an empathetic, earnest (though smarmy) candidate seeking to steer America away from policy disaster in a time of crisis. In his worse moments, Romney appears to be a screw-loose bully, either about to cry or jump out of his skin with rage as he bowls over speakers with the special aloofness of “fuck you” money.
In President Obama’s better moments he comes across as a measured alternative—a principled candidate working for the poor and pushing hard for change even in bad economic times, more or less doing his best with a bad situation. At his worst Obama seems like a President doing a very poor job of justifying a failing administration, mired in big ideas with little actionable good and priorities out-of-line with what America needs right now.
There you go: all the opinions you’re going to hear from all the news sources, mashed into two little contradictory paragraphs. Feeling flummoxed? You ought to be. By the end of the debate, I felt less sure of what on earth was happening than when I went into it, and last I checked that’s not how debates were supposed to work. Does Romney support a $5 trillion tax cut or not? Does President Obama want to plunder $716 billion from Medicare or not? Turn by turn attacks were delivered by each candidate and deemed false but never backed up in their falsehood, revealing the true loser of the debate: the facts.
While I could explain in detail how each of these arguments is both true and false in their own special way, the truth is it doesn’t really matter. The people interested in those intricacies have already sifted through them on their own time, and those people are the insane, masochistic few (like myself) who pop a Maalox and pray they don’t bleed out into their stomach while they try and understand our ass-backwards political system.
I label “facts” tonight’s true loser because what became unavoidably clear is that they are now no more than political tools, so spun that they’ve lost all measure of “truthiness”. Go on Politifact and look at the recap from the debate: just about everything was deemed a “half truth”, and nothing even touched either side of the scale. The truth about the debate, is that the truth doesn’t matter.
As one of my particularly astute friends put it, “Who you think won the debate has everything to do with who you were going to vote for anyway”—and it’s true. Studies have backed up that debates rarely sway voting choices. But I’d rather make a larger point than fight upstream against American apathy: the level of discourse in this country has become disgustingly low. Political ads have always been low-brow, yes I understand that. But I find it flat-out offensive that we can’t be trusted to sit still long enough for candidates to hash out the intricacies of their numbers and policy points in a debate setting. That debates have devolved into glorified occasions to stump head-to-head with your candidate. They’ve become an arena for politicking and spin rather than, well, actual debate. Maybe I’m being naïve in assuming that this was ever the case, but wouldn’t it be nice if it were?
Fortunately for those on the window ledge, despite the subjective truths and focus-group-tested policy points, there actually was an opportunity to learning something tonight—maybe something that matters more than what the candidates had to say. We had an opportunity to see how each candidate is going to react to conflict in a stressful situation. I’ll go ahead and say it: Mitt Romney won this debate on paper. His facts were compelling, his presentation polished, and he got his chance to beat the bejeezus out of a President barely holding together a weak economy. But when you see it on video and absorb the ominous glares, fussing, and smirks—when it comes to this “stress test”—the President blew Mitt away. Romney’s predilection for poorly concealed rage turned out to be a far stronger opponent than the President, and on-stage with Obama the venomous hatred that runs through his party struck hard. From the interruptions and entire sentences spoken over him, to the aggressive cross-stage direction of all Romney’s comments (as opposed to at the moderator/audience), to the mocking tone he often used when speaking at President Obama, you have to wonder: how is this man going to respect foreign leaders if he can’t even respect the highest position in our own government?
In the first televised presidential debate between Nixon and JFK, this same split in perceptions occurred: those only hearing the words thought Nixon had won, but those who saw it on TV felt JFK was the winner. And just like that, Romney was great in content—but in the unblinking eye of the camera his attitude, anger, and ability to be easily flustered looked far from presidential, no matter how much he is praised in the news this morning. Forcefulness is not the key quality of being Presidential, and certainly not of diplomacy. After my mind went numb from the fact-less facts and Ping-Pong points, that was all I could absorb. My only mental image became this angry-eyed man glowering across the table at leaders from Iran, China, and Pakistan, boldly and coldly tracking down his dream of “An American Century”. President Obama on the other hand, largely took the high road, remaining calm, relinquishing authority to the moderator far more readily (even apologizing at one point for going over his time), and was generally far more collected and respectful toward everyone in the room, his opponent included. And that is why he is the man I want with his finger on “the button”. If America doesn’t get caught up in the machismo of steam-rolling arguments and his absolute refusal to back down, Romney might want to start saving for another run. But unfortunately for us all, I’m just not sure that will be the case.