A CNN poll this morning confirms what the pundits were saying last night: Romney was the winner of round one. The survey shows that 67% of viewers believed Romney to be the winner.
But my question is, how much do these debates really matter? They can galvanize and inspire a base around a candidate when they do well, they can serve as a wake-up call for a candidate when they do poorly (as Obama supporters hope will happen here), and they offer independents and undecideds and opportunity to tilt one way or the other. But for the most part, the psychological phenomenon of “confirmation bias” (thanks for that, Shane Moe), means most of us have already made up our minds.
There’s a curious thing about debates: If you’ve ever taken a debate class or ever debated in college you know one thing: Winning a debate does not mean you actually believe the positions you take, and it certainly doesn’t mean you are going to act on the positions you take. It means you’ve come prepared for that debate and have argued well, persuasively, etc. It means you’ve embodied well—-convincingly– the positions you’ve taken for at least that moment in time.
Now, none of that is meaning-less. We want our presidents to be able to hold their own in an argument, to sound “presidential,” to be able to think on their feet, to be in command of the “facts,” to have clear positions, policies and vision, and–that all-important element of American politics–to be likable. And the level of sophistication and “presidentiality” last night impressed me in a way that recent past debates haven’t.
But what struck me last night (as it did most everyone else) was Obama’s failure to hit on Romney’s most vulnerable spot: his 47% gaffe. Here we have a presidential candidate who (when he assumes the cameras are off) seems to despise half the country’s population; a candidate who seems to lack compassion for the poor and the “down-and-out” and who does not seem to understand the disparate realities created by privilege versus disadvantage and marginalization. And yet, in this debate, he spoke eloquently about how states should “craft” their own policies to care for their poor. Obama’s problem was that he did not seize on the opportunity to note the disparity between what was said in the public, national debate and what was said at the $50,000/plate fundraiser. “The poor? You care about the poor? Since when?” That’s all he would have needed to say.
I know there are conservative solutions for dealing with poverty and I understand the pro-capitalist argument for encouraging responsibility and self-initiative. “You can give a man a fish, or you can teach him to fish,” and all that. And there are surely problems with the welfare system as it stands. But as a Christian who leans democrat and an Obama supporter myself. to be forthright, I can’t get the notion out of my head, said by many people in a variation of ways, that the test of the moral health of a democracy is in how it treats its weakest members. The bottom line, for me, is that we need a backstop for the disenfranchised and backgrounded of society. While ultimately I don’t trust any politician to be the answer to society’s problems, if the “weakest member” moral test is a good criterion, I frankly trust Obama more than Romney–regardless of the winner of this debate. But maybe that’s just my confirmation bias at work.