I was on the debating team in High School. I loved it. That's probably because, growing up in a first generation Portuguese immigrant family which was heavily involved in the labor union movement, we didn't debate. We argued. Passionately.
You mostly made your points through zingers and other ad hominem attacks. When that didn't work, you yelled. The unwritten rule seemed to be that the louder you yelled, the more you drowned out your opponent, the more likely you were to win. Pounding your fist on the table or into your hand earned you extra points.
It was all about posturing and deflection, intimidation and flourish.
Debate Class, on the other hand, was all about point and counterpoint. Manner and method were carefully taught. It was about skill and strategy and knowing yourself and your opponent. Yes, style was important - right down to what style and color of clothes - you were going to wear. Blue was a favorite. "Blue is believability" we were taught.
If you were nervous, that was okay. It was important not to look nervous. Volume, pitch and body language were carefully covered. We practiced elocution.
No cue cards were allowed. We were taught to look your opponent in the eye when addressing him or her. Look at the audience more than you look at your opponent. Connect with them. Convince them.
It never really worked in my family which considered it a verbal blood-sport. It was sort of like boxing with your gloves off, only with words.
They wanted to argue. I wanted to debate. It didn't work. I lost every time.
If I introduced "facts" into the argument, I would get laughed out of the room. Facts, in and of themselves, do not win or lose a debate. I learned that facts are like bricks in a wall. If you remove one of them, you will weaken your opponent's case, but you really need to attack the main argument in order to bring the whole wall crashing down.
One last thing: You never actually "won" a debate. No, you "bested" your opponent. Very civilized, right? Sort of like "love" in a tennis match. Except, in tennis, "love" means no score - and, anything is possible on the next serve.
So, I was not merely an interested, invested voter watching the first of three Presidential Debates in a very hotly contested election where the ideological choices have never been more clear and the stakes have never been higher. I watched it as someone who actually remembers what she learned way back when in high school, curious about the way the 'pros' would handle themselves.
Apparently, a large percentage of the American viewing audience - especially the political pundits - have decided that Romney "won" last night's debate.
That may well be so, but, based on what I know about debating, I'm of the opinion that Obama "bested" Romney.
What "won" was style over substance. Which, when you're going for 'likeability' may actually win you a few shallow points. Me? I want a President, not a man who really, really, really wants to be President of the United States, someone who represents a political party that simply wants to unseat the incumbent and then run ripshod over poor people and women and people of color and.... well, anyone who isn't affluent and "successful".
There is no doubt in my mind that Romney put on the better show. He was aggressive and energized, well-rehearsed and eager to score points. He did "squint" at Obama during the counterpoint - which I found annoying - but never looked him in the eye. He never looked at the audience, either. He was rude to the moderator, who allowed both men - but mostly Romney - to run right over him.
Romney had lots of "facts". Unfortunately, most of those "facts" were inaccurate. He was, once again, sorely lacking in the details of his plan, and when he did give details, they reversed everything he's been saying for the past 18 months. It was the old "empty suit" at the podium again.
Indeed, I'm thinking he's in trouble with many factions of the Republican Party this morning. Unless, of course, they are less concerned with the substance of what Romney said and more focused on their stated goal of making Obama "a one term President". I've got enough money for a cup of Starbucks coffee to bet that the later rather than the former is closer to the truth.
At first, Obama disappointed me. Indeed, as the debate ended, I was feeling deflated and sad. It didn't help to hear Chris Matthews in full meltdown mode, yelling, "Where was Obama tonight?". The President didn't seem to fight back. Where he normally appears cool and calm, he seemed more tired and weary - like the last thing he wanted to do on the 20th Anniversary of his marriage to Michele was to be on the same stage as Romney. And, who could blame him, really?
But, he was. On the stage. In the first of three Presidential debates. In a very close race. Where the stakes are inordinately high.
He never looked Romney in the eye. He did look at the audience, playing to his strong suit of connecting with the people. He effectively communicated that he is the Commander in Chief but, combined with what appeared to be weariness, that seemed to work against him.
Tucker Carlson kept underscoring the image of an "angry Black man" - which was a stretch even on a good day.
That tape was released (or, actually, re-released) the day before the debates. That was no accident. The message had been sent to the American viewing audience which Obama heard. If he raised his voice - even a notch - the idiots on the Right would start screaming, "See? Angry. Black. Man."
As if that's a bad thing. As if Romney isn't an angry white man. As if the entire Right isn't so white-hot pissed off that there's a Black man in the White House that they will do whatever they need to do - say whatever they need to say - to get him ousted.
The bottom line for me is that Romney may have removed a few bricks from Obama's wall, but he didn't touch the main argument and never presented his own case. Obama spent less time trying to remove bricks and more time laying out his vision for the country.
Romney may have "won" in style but Obama "bested" him in substance.
Here's my take away from last night's debate:
Mitt Romney really, really, really wants to be President of the United States.
Barack Obama wants to lead the country and serve the people.
The American viewing public seems to think style is to be preferred over substance. Small wonder. We've been fed a steady diet of fast food and raised on sitcoms where life comes with a sound track and every major family problem or societal crime can be solved in thirty to sixty minutes.
I keep hearing Mandy Patinkin sing "Coffee in a Cardboard Cup". ("It's Ready Whip and instant tea and Minute Rice and my-oh-me....")
Tortoise and the Hare? Remember who won?
Slow and steady wins the race. Slow and steady is the name of the game, baby.
There's a Vice Presidential debate and two more Presidential debates ahead of us. The VP debate promises to be very lively if not entertaining, watching Old Joe punch a few holes in Lyin' Ryan's wall. It won't be a great debate but it will probably score high on the "Must-see-TV" rating card.
I'll watch that debate, simply because.....well.... Hi, my name is Elizabeth and I'm a political junkie.
This race is far from over. Perhaps Mr. Obama should spend some time thinking about these words from Mr. William Shakespeare:
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;So, if you woke up this morning feeling badly because you watched the debate - or you didn't and you're feeling down about what you're hearing from the political pundits - just chill out. Barry is on it.
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
You know your places: God be with you all!
Henry V, Act III, Scene i.
I love it when I wake up in the morning and Barack Obama is the President.
In the end, substance usually wins out over style.
When it doesn't, God help us.
And, God always does.