Selling The Presidential Product

I swore to myself that I would not kick the dead horse of the debates again, but like New Year’s Resolutions, this one evaporated quickly: I read an opinion piece in Yahoo News dissecting the last presidential debate on foreign policy. I knew going in that Obama should be the stronger voice in this arena, given Romney’s gaffes in England during the Olympics and his untimely remarks after the disaster in Libya. But what I did not anticipate was the degree to which this debate, like the others, is really all about image and making the right impression in order to win a political contest — and what this implies for the rest of us Consider the following remarks by Jeff Greenwald, opinion guru of Yahoo News:

There were times during this last debate when I almost thought I could hear the words of Mitt Romney’s advisers playing in his head:

“Look, big guy, you’re on track to win this thing. What they want to see tonight is a calm, confident leader, unthreatening, informed, unruffled. So don’t get up in Obama’s grill. Bring the conversation back to the economy when you can, and be the reasonable, credible Commander-in-Chief the voters want.”

In a word, create the impression that you are the man who these people want running the country for the next four years. Forget about the truth; forget about principles, and even about foreign policy; forget about strategies for strengthening the tattered reputation of this country in the Middle East; forget about how we might best deal with warring political and religious groups elsewhere in the world. Just smile and look calm and in control. Your audience tonight will be mostly women because their husbands and brothers will be watching sports, so your job is to bring them into the fold. As Greenfield said further on in his analysis:

Rather, his [Romney’s] challenge was to stand—or sit—face to face with the incumbent president and demonstrate that he could credibly argue matters of state, in the face of a debate foe determined to thrust and spar at every opportunity. Without question, Obama came into this last debate knowing that his presidency is hanging by a thread, in large measure due to his remarkably weak performance in the first debate. There was no opportunity he let pass.

If Greenfield is right, and he knows more about this sort of thing than I do, then those who plan debate strategies know that people don’t listen carefully; they just want to get a warm feeling after they watch another TV performance. This debate was carefully staged as one more form of entertainment on a night when the debate itself had to contend with Monday Night Football and the seventh game of the National League Baseball Championship between the Giants and the Cardinals. Know your audience and tell them what they want to hear.

Obama’s election is “hanging by a thread” because he failed to perform well in the first debate. How bizarre! I have always said these debates are about image and impressions. But the really disturbing thought is that the voters in this country buy into this crap; they are willing to be manipulated by image-makers and marketers into buying the candidate with the most sparkle. The debates are really about who a great many voters will cast their vote for — on the basis not of political records and probable performance in the highest office in the land, but about how a man looks on TV in a 90 minute debate with a political opponent who is working hard to create an even stronger impression. The founding fathers must be proud!

Liar, Liar, Pants On Fire

There are a couple of excellent sources for checking the facts after political speeches and such “major” TV events as the current presidential debates. One of my fellow bloggers even gives a synopsis after the debates so we can see who told the biggest “whoppers.” This raises some interesting issues.

To begin with, both debaters tell falsehoods and half-truths and do so repeatedly. As one reads the fact checks one notes that while the facts have been checked before a number of the falsehoods are repeated even though the deception has been pointed out, perhaps several times. Strange. But more to the point is the obvious consideration that the average listener has no way to tell in the course of a debate or a political speech that a lie has been told or a half-truth has suddenly appeared from the politician’s hat. This is why the debates are so untrustworthy and leave us little else to go by except impressions. It really is all about theater — as I noted in yesterday’s blog. Consider the following fact check item:

Romney: It’s “already illegal in this country to have automatic weapons”
The verdict: False
The federal ban on manufacturing some semi-automatic assault weapons that President Clinton signed in 1994 expired in 2004, and wasn’t renewed. There are other regulations and restrictions still in place — the National Firearms Act of 1934, the Gun Control Act of 1968, and the Hughes Amendment in 1986, says Brian Bennett at the Los Angeles Times. But ”fully automatic weapons — guns that fire continuously when the trigger is held down — are legal to possess in the United States.”

How many people listening to a rapid-fire (sorry!) debate will know enough to realize that one of the speakers just told a whopper? And he did so on a vital and controversial issue that many people care deeply about, one way or the other. The matter of gun control is a hot topic and as a general rule very few people who argue with one another in bars about this issue have bothered to gather the evidence and check on their “facts” beforehand. That’s to be expected. But one does not expect this from seasoned debaters like these two politicians. Romney told the lie noted above, but Obama didn’t call him out.

How many people know that the second Constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to bear arms is couched in language that makes it clear that the “right” is tied to a militia that was supposed to make it unnecessary to have a standing army? More to the point, how many people listening to this debate know that the federal ban on semi-automatic weapons was even signed in the first place, or by whom — much less that it expired in 2004? The central question here is whether or not this matters in the least. Will either of these men be asked to make important decisions on their feet? Does the quickness of their minds and a grasp of all relevantl facts really matter when important decisions will be made behind closed doors with well-informed advisers and time to reflect? Of course not. It’s about who presents himself better to the TV audience.

In any case what occurs in these events is that the politicians (all of them) have learned that if you say something with conviction and then repeat it often enough your listeners will accept it as true. The important thing is to have the “ring of conviction” in your voice and look the camera straight in the eye (as it were). It matters not whether what you say is true or false. No one “out there” knows what the hell you are talking about — and very few will bother to check the facts later on. So just let it go and let the (buffalo) chips fall where they may. Truth be damned: it’s all about getting elected!

Debates As Theater

Now that the second of three debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is over and the dissections have begun it is time to either join the fray or turn one’s back in disgust and wish the whole thing were over. I confess I am of the second opinion for the most part, but a recent article on Yahoo News piqued my interest and invited another comment or two on a topic on which far too much ink has already been spilled. I do think the debates are theater and they should not have anything whatever to do with who wins the highest office in the land. But they do, apparently: what I wish were the case really doesn’t count.

Apparently, Obama “won” the second debate according to recent reports. But in political correspondent Jeff Greenfield’s opinion it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. It’s all about the first debate which Obama “lost.” As Greenfield says, if Obama had performed as well in the first debate as he did in the second the election would be virtually over. Consider:

When the evening began, one observation dominated the conversation: “If President Barack Obama has another debate like the last one, the election’s over.”

When the evening ended, I was struck by a different thought: If Obama had performed this way at the first debate, the election would have been over.

In every debate, whatever the format, whatever the questions, there is one and only one way to identify the winner: Who commands the room? Who drives the narrative? Who is in charge? More often than not on Tuesday night, I think, Obama had the better of it.

Moreover, apparently Romney gained ground from the first debate which he will not lose from his performance in the second debate in Greenfield’s opinion. But note the criteria Greenfield cites as keys to who “wins” and who “loses” the debates: Who commands the room? Who drives the narrative? Who is in charge? What on earth do these things have to do with running the country? Nothing. They are about theater, period. And in Greenfield’s opinion, Obama’s performance in the second debate was better theater than Romney’s (give him a 9.6 to Romney’s 8.3) and considerably better than his performance in the first debate (7.4). Aldous Huxley had it right in the 1950s when he predicted that Americans would one day elect an actor as president!

Historically, viewer interest in the debates does fall off after the first one. And in that regard Greenfield is probably correct in saying that Obama’s performance on October 16th was of little consequence. But again one must ask why on earth the voters of this land hadn’t made their minds up about who could run this country best long before the two men stood before TV cameras and played the roles required of them as performing clowns in that first debate? Where have people been for the past months that they have to listen to a TV debate to decide who will get their vote — given that these two men sit on opposite sides of the political fence on every important issue? The answers seem clear: an astonishing number of people in this country are simply too busy to follow the news, pick up a newspaper, visit web sites, or read carefully argued blogs in order to determine where the two men stand on vital issues that impact all our lives.

But as they say it’s “academic.” The second debate is now over and apparently Obama performed much better than he did in the first debate. But it will not make much difference because apparently watching TV for 90 minutes is all many people can spend making up their minds whom they will vote for as president of these United States, and those 90 minutes took place two weeks ago. As Greenfield said, making clear what arena these debates are held in: “That opportunity [for Obama] vanished that night. While it’s clear that Obama’s performance will revive the enthusiasm of his supporters, it seems unlikely that it will cause those impressed by Romney to reconsider. Like they say in show business, timing is everything.”

Political Discourse

The political scene has always been a bit trashy. One can look back at the early elections in this country and find numerous examples of name-calling and trash-talking between political candidates. Those candidates could sling mud with the best. But the level of trash-talking seems to be escalating with time and has reached new levels. One must simply adjust and acquiesce — or tear one’s hair out to no purpose. But one must also regret that the level of discourse has dropped so low. At the level of the Presidential race, especially, one would like to think the candidates would be shaping their political agendas and informing the voting public what their plans are for the next four years. Instead we read stories like the following:

WOLFEBORO, N.H. (AP) — President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney have one campaign strategy in common: Each is trying to convince voters that his opponent in the closely contested race for the White House is not trustworthy.. . .

Romney’s campaign said Sunday that Obama is willing to say anything to win a second term and should say he’s sorry for attacking the Republican’s successful career at Bain Capital.

“No, we will not apologize,” the president responded, adding that if Romney wants credit for his business leadership, he also needs to take responsibility. The Obama campaign says that with Romney at the helm, Bain Capital sent thousands of well-paying American jobs to China.

One is reminded of little boys in the school yard after school calling one another names:

“You’re an idiot!”

“Oh Yeah? You’re an idiot!”

“You’re a bigger one!”

“Oh yeah? ”

“Yeah!!”

“Well, I’m rubber and you’re glue. Whatever you say about me bounces off me and sticks to you!” [This, of course is the equivalent of the triple-dog-dare and there is no possible rejoinder. Unfortunately, there is no such response in political exchanges: they can go on forever.]

Such an exchange, however, doesn’t advance the argument much does it? It doesn’t inform of instruct. It just makes noise: sound and fury signifying nothing. I have blogged about “uncivil discourse” back in March, and we expect this from little boys and from people who rely on text messaging. We don’t expect it from grown men and women in the public arena though it seems to be more and more commonplace.

One would hope that elections would bring out the best in people. Instead, they seem to bring out the worst. But we must realize that the level of political discourse that seems to be dropping lower and lower reflects the level of discourse in this society as a whole where vocabularies have shrunk and tired and underpaid teachers seek the latest technical toys to give their entitled and spoiled students what they want rather than what they need. In effect, we are getting what we deserve.

Our attention spans have grown shorter and our lives busier than ever. We are bombarded on every side from morning until night with images and thought bites, most of which we filter out. We have lost the ability to listen and to speak intelligently or write a coherent sentence. We don’t have time to stand in the hot sun for hours as the folks did in Illinois to listen to Honest Abe and his opponents address critical issues of the times. I doubt that we could do it even if we were willing. And clearly we are not willing. As a people we are terribly ignorant of our own history and focused almost exclusively on the economy. As long as we can pay the cable bill and have beer in the ‘fridge we are content. If not, we’ll vote the bums out of office!

If a candidate were to stand up and declare himself or herself for the public good, to address the real issues of the day in no uncertain terms, and to sketch out a viable plan about how those problems might be addressed there would be precious few who would listen. And those who did would doubt: we have become jaded and skeptical of all political promises. And with good reason. But this is not likely to happen anyway. Instead we will get the shouting and name calling. It’s what we have come to expect in politics. And it may very well be just what we deserve.