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!

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