The Danger of Favoring Style Over Substance ~
In the wake of the first of three Presidential debates, I think it’s important for us to examine a few things about how we react as voters to these debates.
First, debates- in theory- should be about the presentation of facts. The way in which those facts are presented is the basis of the debater’s position on a particular argument. In reality, this is not always the case- especially in political debates. In politics, the message is often either obscured by the delivery, or enhanced beyond its merit.
Which brings me to the October 3rd debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney. The debate format consisted of questions posed by the moderator, to which each candidate had a two-minute window to respond. The rulebook was the first thing to die an ugly death that night. The second was the truth. During the debate, Mitt Romney repeatedly ran over his time allotment and interrupted the President during his. In the interest of fairness, President Obama ran over his time on occasion as well, but given the Romney interruptions, it came close to even. In fact, I heard reports that President Obama actually had more speaking time, but that did little to sway the overall effect.
In regards to the truth, several reports- including Factcheck.org, where Romney is referred to as a “serial exaggerator” and Politifact call out Romney on his patently false statements- especially those in regard to the Affordable Care Act ( Obamacare). An article in The Week that asks who told the biggest “whoppers” in the debate reveals that (of the points they covered) Romney made three claims that were “not true” or “mostly untrue” and that President Obama never got farther than “half-true”. Some of the biggest lies Mitt Romney told in the debate concerned healthcare- specifically regarding the Affordable Care Act (ACA)) , (ironically modeled after Romney’s own plan in Massachusetts) which Romney has promised to repeal his “first day in office”. Romney also plays pretty fast and loose with the truth regarding what he will put in its place. Economist, Paul Krugman lays out the obvious falsehoods in his New York Time Op-Ed entitled “Romney’s Sick Joke” far better than I can. I highly recommend reading it in its entirety.
Despite that, President Obama did not come across as the “winner” in this debate. Why, you ask? The clearest reason I can see is this: the President was faced with an opponent who seized the podium and did not let go until he was done. The legitimacy of the argument was lost in a fury of bully tactics and the inability of the moderator to establish a sense of order.
To add insult to injury, the post debate analysis was not friendly or even conciliatory towards the President. I thought Chris Matthews was just this side of apoplectic when he was criticizing the President’s lack of “fire”. Lawrence O’Donnell, more measured in his analysis, asserted that he “likes that kind of debate format”, saying that it gives both sides the chance to show their strength. I agree with that statement for the most part- BUT, that sort of free-for-all does not work well with time limits. Especially when one party respects the time limitations, more than another does.
While I agreed with some of the post debate criticism, I thought that criticism should have been tempered with an equal emphasis on the flagrant lies that Romney stated during the debate. The lies were mentioned, but only in the context of the President’s inability to rebut them. Therefore, the emphasis on style over content was further exaggerated,
You are probably asking, as I do repeatedly, why the merit of a particular argument gets lost in a cloud of stylistic perception. The answer is that we, at heart, are a consumer driven society. We base many, if not most, of our decisions on packaging or presentation. Since recent polls have indicated that Romney is perceived as “wooden”, “robotic”, “detached”, his biggest hurdle in this debate was to break that perception. So, he put on his best, friendly, smiling, used-car salesman face and proceeded to sell us a “car’ that he assures us is the best one available. Look at how pretty and shiny it is! No need to look under the hood or have a mechanic check it out- I am telling you it’s the best there is! Of course, once you look under the hood, you find out that his claim that his “car’ is the best is just so much bunk. In fact, he has sold you a clunker. We have all fallen for this tactic at one time or another. There is no shame in that. The only problem with falling for that kind of tactic- that slick salesman sell- is that when it comes to making a decision about an election that way you have to wait quite a while before you can return that clunker. In this case, four years. In the meantime, that clunker will have cost you far more than you could ever imagine when you gave in to the slick sell.
So, we have to look deeper. We have to concentrate on what these people are saying and beyond that, do their actions mesh with their words. We have to look past the packaging and see what is inside the box. It is hard, I know- and it requires an adjustment to the way we think that is not encouraged by mainstream media. They are just as prone to get wrapped up in the bells and whistles as we are. In fact, they sometimes encourage that line of thinking in order to capture and hold our attention as viewers. We can help to change that by demanding more,
In a very humorously entitled article in Consortiumnews.com Robert Parry sums up the attitude regarding the political process rather well: “Often, goofiness captures the U.S. political process, as it did in 2000 and did again on Wednesday night. Electing a president is turned into a fun game of playing theater critic or stand-up comedian, rather than the harder job of evaluating the mettle of the candidates who could step into the Oval Office.”
I believe that is a pretty apt analysis. The larger point is- we can do better. So, if you’ve ever been taken in by the smooth words and moves of a slick salesman, remember that feeling of anger, disappointment and disillusionment. Leaves a bad taste in you mouth, doesn’t it? Imagine tasting that for the next four years…and beyond. .