Here’s the problem. We’re a nation more into style than substance. The 1st debate between President Barack Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney had the makings of a conversation about in what direction the nation really needs to move. However, unless you had already devoted much time to knowing the issues and the candidates’ promises, it was difficult, as it usually is, to know not only the truth but also the effect of different paths of tax and spending policies. Each candidate did express different paths, but did we learn anything about which is the better way? We learned what we sometimes do, that one candidate was more convincing and politically profited from the moment.
If the candidates were honest and each more intelligently challenging of the other when his opponent painted too optimistic or too negative a take on a policy, that might have worked. If the moderator had known when someone was stretching a fact, and was willing to speak up, that might have helped, too. But neither happened consistently in the October 3rd debate. The moderator occupied a chair. If he had intelligently interrupted more it would have upset some partisans, but it could have provided clarity.
The bigger fault, however, rests with the candidates. To his credit, Mitt Romney was more challenging and engaging than Barack Obama. President Obama failed at several key moments. Obama at times seemed unhappy about not being there, which has happened before to sitting Presidents. He at other moments seemed insecure or unfocused. When he spoke substantively, it often sounded like the first layer of a response and not the stronger, confident statements of a leader. When he did respond, sometimes it ironically was the failure of style, as much as substance to refute the aggressive, confident Romney. He also missed opportunities. For example, when Romney said he never heard of the tax deduction Obama talked about for companies sending jobs out of the country, Romney joked that maybe he, Romney, should get a new accountant. The President could have countered by asking Romney if that meant that Romney had sent jobs, or cash, overseas. That would have certainly been a debating point. Perhaps, it would have led to a deeper discussion. For his part, for example, Romney could have done a better job challenging the President’s $4 trillion deficit cutting breakdown or explaining where the President’s savings were or were not in health care.
Both candidates made statements that were not entirely true and larger, more specific questions about hard choices were not answered, if asked, and the candidates seemed to be saying, “Here’s all you need to know.” That is not saying that Mitt Romney would not have been able to hold his own in a more sophisticated discussion, but he rarely had to try. Romney also pretty much succeeded in criticizing without being disrespectful. Whether President Obama, by being so low-key, was trying to remain higher than Romney in favorably, or likeability, ratings I don’t know, but real discourse about American domestic policy suffered.
While images are an important part of leadership, the debates tend to limit most of the discussion to those images. Would our opinions of who won and lost be changed to some degree if the split screen were not employed? I’m not suggesting that it not be used, but rather that its effect is another example of how we are influenced in our conclusions about who won a debate. Substance has a hard time triumphing over style, especially when a candidate is complicit.
For the people who work hard every day, for the people concerned about liberty, for the U.S. Armed Forces personnel who died or were wounded, for the people living in violent neighborhoods, for the homeowner who is trying to live up to her financial responsibility, is a debate like this one or one between Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008, doing them much justice?
Republicans since 2008 have been claiming that America bought style and image over substance. Democrats may be worried they’ll be uttering the same line after November 6th. But more importantly, are we as Americans substantially any more educated about how government works, about how capitalism works, and about the serious financial problems which confront our nation, or are we just closer to deciding who looks like a leader, this year?