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Thursday, October 04, 2012

And, the winner is...... over substance, hands down.

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.

Did I mention that I loved it? Mind you, I wasn't very good at it, but I loved the art and science of it. I loved watching the clips of the Nixon-Kennedy debate - analyzing them, studying their every move and following every vocal inflection.

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.

He's in a tough spot - especially with the Right's much-hyped re-release yesterday of a 2007 tape of Obama talking to a room full of Black pastors and giving a "shout out" to his then-pastor, Jeremiah Wright. 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....")

All I can say is wait. Remember the fable of the 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;
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.
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.

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.


Al said...

You make wonderfully valid points Elizabeth. Unfortunately, as a woman I work with e-mailed me, "all I care about is getting Obama out. He will ruin the Supreme Court for a generation." And there you have it. Style doesn't matter, substance doesn't matter. Mr. Romney has finally figured out that he can say anything he wants and the base will shut up. It is all about defeating this president and if he doesn't learn that quickly, he will be defeated.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I understand, Al. The thing of it is that he can't just say, "I'm trying to get the incumbent out of office" - even though he has, in fact, said that. His base isn't enough to get him elected. He's got to "kick some butt", move the "moveable middle" and sell himself to the "undecideds". That's where the 'style over substance' comes from.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

My only worry, Elizabeth, is best expressed in hockey language:

"You can't play hockey against a team that plays shinny."

Mitt is definitely playing shinny.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I don't know what it means to "play shinny". I think Mitt is playing the same game he's played all along - since when he ran for Gov of MA. It's the lyin' game. Obama, I don't think, was expecting that. Okay, so, as the girls on the streets in Newark say, "Piss on my once and tell me it's raining." There are two more debates. Let's see how the Tortoise plays the Hare.

Matthew said...

I was really disapppointed in the debate, and especially the moderator, Jim Lehrer. Yes, the economy is important but it was nearly the whole debate. The last debate is dedicated to foreign policy which means only 2 on domestic issues and one is gone now. Where were the discussions about gay rights? abortion? contraception? womens rights? affirmative action? prisons? marijuana? which supreme court justices you like? and on and on and on. All of these issues were neglected. But in 2004, they asked Kerry and Bush about gay rights and in 2008 in the VP debate they asked Palin and Biden about gay rights. No hard questions were asked. Also, I guess it is considered rude or biased if a moderator asks a particular question of a particular candidate. Apparently if you do that then you are "in the tank" for a particular candidate so only vague open ended questions can be asked. For example, Mitt was never asked about the 47. I would have asked him why he thinks he does not have the rhetorical skills to convice that 47% to take responsibility for their lives? And it need not be exclusively partison. You could ask Obama why/how Susan Rice bungled and misstated the Libya mess -- See Maureen Dowd's recent column on that in the NY Times. But the moderators wont "go there" and therefore they both get a pass on having to talk about mistakes they may have made. So insanely frustrating.

Terri said...

Yup. I woke up this morning feeling much better than I felt watching the debate. But my problem with the debate was not the Pres nor his slow, calm, steady, lack-luster was Romney's bully behavior and that he was getting away with it over and over and over AND then the pundits and others seemed to think that behavior qualifies as a win. made me ill.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Matt - It was the first of three debates. There will be time. Tortoise and the Hare, baby. Tortoise and the Hare.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Terri - That's it. The standards are being set by the entertainment industry and what sell. Not quality.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Shinny is free for all pick-up hockey with very little playmaking. More like every time you get the puck you better shoot it, b/c you're gonna be poke checked and back checked and slammed.

Mitt shot and shot and shot--but what he shot was mostly lies. He was shooting a frozen road apple instead of a puck and hoping people would see it go in the net.

Where Obama needs to go in debate #2 I believe, is every time Mitt shoots a lie, for Obama to fact check him on the spot. "That's simply not true..." and spout the facts/figures that refute it.

I suspect since Mitt's lies worked this time, he will shoot them again.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks for that explanation, Kirke. Must be a midWestern thing - which the Mittster would know and Obama wouldn't. I agree with you in terms of what Obama should do next, but you know, the more I've thought about it, the more I think that Obama did that intentionally. I mean, he gave the poor man a win, which he desperately needed, but also set him up for the next two debates. Sort of a Jedi-Master brain game. At least, that's what I think on a good day.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Well, that's what I think on a good day too, but on a bad day I think, "Maybe he's just sick of this crap and wants out." *sigh*

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I don't think so, Kirke. It's well known that Obama is highly competitive. I think, more days than not, he really likes his job. I think he's actually more concerned about what he'll do when he's no longer POTUS. That's just a hunch.