“Well, you’re right, which is why I disagree completely.”
Each week in Civil Discussion, Ben Bartlett (who majored in Political Theory) and Richard Clark (a political spectator who is friends with a guy who majored in Political Theory) discuss political events as they happen over email, hashing out the meaning and manipulations behind them. Also just being bros.
Richard: Takeaways from Tuesday’s debate: Obama knew he had to be on fire, so he was. Romney knew he had to hang in there, so he did. The audience of regular people knew they had to act normal, so they looked very strange trying to act normal.
What about you?
Ben: Um… is it okay that I missed the debate?
I have good reasons. First, I was attending a church event. Second, when I got home I was watching my Detroit Tigers beat down the Yankees. And third, I find it annoying to watch grown men interrupt each other in their attempts to produce the most pithy statement while failing to state anything of substance.
I did plenty of reading about it afterward, though. First, Romney has clearly found his voice, and he had better double down on that for the last three weeks. Second, the most common reading of the debate was that these guys don’t like each other.
The result is perhaps one of the least silly campaigns (shocking, given the primaries and the way this thing started) in many years. Characters like George W. Bush, Al Gore, John McCain, and above all Sarah Palin have brought a little too much comedy to election time. This year, it looks like our candidates are a little too sharp for that stuff.
Well, except for Romney’s binder full of women.
Richard: Your reading probably didn’t convey the incredibly awkward tension that erupted when Barack and Mitt basically just started saying “Nuh uh” and “Yes huh” back and forth to one another. It probably didn’t drive home the impact of Mitt telling the President that he’ll have his turn and to sit back down.
Most people say the President won, and besides “obvious left-wing bias”, this is because Mitt came across as kind of a bully – not a good thing for a dude who’s been accused of holding down a kid and shaving off his hair in the schoolyard.
It seems like all this style stuff is the deciding factor in every single debate, and some of it seems genuinely valid. After all, voters are trying to figure out if Barack’s heart is even in this anymore. And we’re trying to decide if we can really trust Mitt Romney, like, as a person. For those questions, style can be a telling indicator, right?
Ben: Well, you’re right, which is why I disagree completely.
You’re right that style matters, but I think it’s ridiculous. For the vast majority of our presidents, style mattered very little. Only with the advent of television (that disgraceful medium) did style suddenly move to the fore. Can you see George Washington giving a prime-time speech with his false teeth clacking away? Or gangly Abraham Lincoln beating the handsome George McClellan in 1864 if their debates were televised? Or FDR trying to debate in a town hall format while confined to his wheelchair?
For me, a debate just shows whether you can focus for an hour and a half. A life history shows whether you can handle the highest-pressure job in the world.
Really, it’s amazing how much we trust our own perception based on limited sample size. I’m quite sure that if I laid out the resumes of these two guys and asked, “which one is more qualified for the Presidency at this moment in history, given our current economic situation?” then Mitt Romney would win in a landslide. And yet he is having an extremely tough time with independent voters simply because he can be insensitive, because he seems out of touch, and because he doesn’t seem likable… all things that would have been no problem before television. He’s a candidate for another era, trying to shoehorn himself into this one.
Richard: For me it’s not about whether you’re telegenic or have good teeth or are handsome. My worry with Romney ever since haircut-gate has been that he might be a completely un-empathetic jerk. That’s not a great quality for any kind of leader in my personal philosophy, so it matters to me if those concerns are reinforced time and time again.
I felt sorry for Romney with the binders of women thing, but the more I thought about it, the more that whole answer seemed kind of weird. Like, he literally couldn’t himself think of any worthy women candidates to offer jobs to? He had to hire a bunch of dudes to go out and do a woman search? The whole premise is just completely absurd, which I think is why the “binders of women” gaffe caught on.
Ben: Okay, but you realize Romney was in high school, and that he’s now in his 60’s, right? Does a person not have an opportunity to grow out of things?
I think your reading of the “binders of women” is completely wrong. His wording was awkward and that makes it funny (especially in combination with his already-precarious standing with women), but he wasn’t making a point about HOW he brought women into his administration, he was making the point THAT there are overwhelming numbers of qualified positions and that he gives them the credit and opportunities they deserve.
Making judgments on fitness for the most difficult job in the world shouldn’t happen on the basis of whether a couple key mistakes, gaffes, or sins are brought to light. After all, let’s not forget that Obama has experimented with drugs, can’t seem to break his smoking habit, had radically liberal political beginnings, and can be incredibly pandering (remember the Beer Summit, or the time that he swore to show people that he knows how to get mad?). Those little moments are just tiny facets of a person’s whole person-hood, and I think it’s nuts that we view them as accurate windows into our leaders’ souls.
Richard: I feel like I should clarify that my concern isn’t that Romney did a bad thing once, but that Romney is still the same kind of guy that would do that sort of thing.
I am sure that Romney would love for that story to just say to people “look I hired lots of women,” at this point, but the fact is he went all into the process. He told us HOW.
You seem to imply that resume and factual things are all that matters about a presidential candidate. I think it’s a good idea to look at the whole person, including their general temperament and their fundamental life philosophy. Sometimes you can get that from their resume, but there are things these guys could be hiding that it helps to go digging for. I admit that the whole process seems nebulous, but I think we’ve probably dodged some presidential bullets in the past (oh look I just triggered a CIA search filter thing) by weeding out some of the more untenable personalities.
Ben: Well, I agree about wanting to know their fundamental life philosophy, but I disagree about whether these minuscule snippets of information tell us that. Again, I fail to see how a guy in his 60s who humiliated another kid in high school is somehow fundamentally worse than a guy in his 50s who broke the law and tried drugs in college.
I also disagree with your characterization (and understanding) of Romney’s, “binders of women,” story, but I suppose we’ll just have to accept our differences on that one.
Whatever the case, I think it’s correct to say that a Presidential election is an important opportunity for all of us to think carefully about the values we demand from our leaders, and the methods we use to evaluate whether potential leaders have those values. I’m certainly enjoying hashing that stuff out with you!