My view of the Oct. 3 presidential debate

It really wasn’t very good TV viewing

I admit, I went off and took a shower after the first hour, then returned, but went to bed and missed the final wrap-ups. The candidates had started repeating themselves pretty early on.

Of course, the Republicans were right not to nominate Newt Gingrich. But if the debate had been Gingrich v. Obama, I bet I wouldn’t have taken that shower!

What’s the context?

As a former higher education person trained in medieval studies, I miss Newt’s historical perspective. 2012 isn’t happening in a vacuum. I hope we will get more history next time, when the topic turns to foreign affairs.

If Romney acts as if we can behave as we did under Reagan, I hope Obama will give him a little lecture on how the world, and our role in it, has changed in the last 30 years.

And no one should act as if our economy can work as it did in the age of Clinton. It just isn’t happening. Capital is too concentrated, workers too disempowered, too many jobs outsourced, globalism too far advanced, rising economies risen too far now.

It wasn’t how we are used to receiving political information any more

Some of us like reading on paper, the old-fashioned way, just the reader and the word in a book or a newspaper. Most people aren’t used to that any more, nor to seeing a play in a quiet, dark room, with just the characters visible on stage.

What we witnessed last night was a play: two opponents, a moderator whose role was to be indignant but passive, and a live audience that had been instructed to keep quiet–except for the last detail, like so-called professional wrestling.

But in political life, we are used to seeing a cluttered but informational screen in front of us.

I wanted to click to see what Romney really said until this week about his tax cut plan, and whether he was now repudiating the Ryan budget. And that $716 billion from Medicare—what was the waste Obama said was being cut out, again?

We could have checked a few links while listening to the debate; we all multitask now.

Does it even matter what they say?

Candidates are free to say whatever they want. But what have they done? We have Obama’s record since January 2009 and Romney’s one term as governor of Massachusetts. Otherwise, we’re into etch-a-sketch territory.

Chief Justice Roberts, in his confirmation hearing, assured the Senate he would have a great respect for precedent. Dream on!

Speaking of the Supreme Court

As some commentators have noted: the next president will name up to 4 more Supreme Court justices. Can there be any more important issue (especially for women and for people who don’t believe the Founders said: “All men and corporations are created equal)?

Neither Romney nor Obama can carry out any of what they say they will do without Congress passing the bills–as we have certainly seen since January, 2009. But in Supreme Court justice nominations, the House of Representatives has no say, and the Senate can only say Yes or No.

Scott Brown, in an unguarded moment, said that Antonin Scalia is his favorite Supreme Court justice. Just think of that, if Scalia is the next president’s model for future appointees.

That would have been a good question to bring up last eve.

Back to Reagan?

As Obama said in January 2008, Reagan “tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.”

I think that is true, and that as an experienced actor, Reagan knew how to reflect the country’s feelings really well. Americans didn’t worry about him being divorced and remarried, or not going to church, or consulting astrologists; people liked his image and delivery up on the stage.

Romney turns out to be a much better actor than anyone thought

Sure, Romney keeps reinventing himself, re-etching the sketch, tacking right and center as the wind blows.

If you are used to seeing plays in a small theater, you know that one actor often plays several roles. Politicians do that too; it’s the nature of the job.

It is said that if you know a foreign language, you speak it with a new personality. It’s worth noting that Romney (like Gingrich and Kerry) speaks French fluently, having (like me) spent over two and a half years in France. I’ll bet he learned by heart the role of an American trying to convert people in French (converting people: not bad practice for a presidential candidate…).

A president needs to change personalities. Obama had to go about his daily routine the day they were about to kill Bin Laden. He has different conversations with Morsi and Netanyahu. That’s no surprise. No president could function if everyone knew what he was really thinking all the time.

In the debate Obama chose to play the cool unflappable role that he enjoys and usually excels at. But maybe he would have done better to let some of his annoyance hang out in his tone as it did in his body language. Not too much annoyance, just enough.

No one questions that Jimmy Carter is an honest man. Maybe he’s too honest to be an effective president? Certainly he was never the actor, and not the debater, that Reagan was.

Former teachers like Obama probably aren’t good actors either. They are used to just laying out the facts with a little analysis and then testing their students on the conclusions. But there was no test last eve, and no class.

The incisive commentator Michelle Goldberg ended her post-debate column by writing: “Romney lied with clarity and conviction. He won and the truth lost.”

I would have added: “with impunity” (unless the fact-checkers, whom his campaign has scorned, suddenly come to life enough to push their way onto the stage).

Rehearsal time

I recall reading that, as a psychological experiment, an actor was hired to make a scholarly presentation at a convention of psychologists. They rated his talk as very professional and very convincing–even though it was later shown to be totally counterfactual. If psychologists can be influenced by skilled acting that easily, how about the rest of us?

Romney spent many days getting coached, debating with Obama stand-in Rob Portman regularly over a whole month, and practicing his lines.

In the timely article: “Romney’s sparring partner offers glimpse into GOP debate prep,” Dana Bash, CNN, 10/3/12, wrote:

Brett O’Donnell, a GOP debate coach who has worked with Portman over the years, paid tribute to Romney’s surprising ability: “He is a great student of political debate. He works very hard at it, so I think that he is absolutely coachable.

Obama had less time for all that and probably didn’t much feel like it either. You could say he doesn’t have such a high coachability level. Besides, he has a day job.

And really, whom would you choose as your dramatic coach? Surely not the guy who, 8 years ago, flubbed the role you are auditioning for!

Of course, Kerry’s expertise is in foreign affairs. Might that show in the next debate? I might tend to go with Meryl Streep myself.


About politicswestchesterview

Nathaniel regards himself as a progressive Democrat who sees a serious need to involve more Americans in the political process if we are to rise to Ben Franklin's challenge "A republic, madam, if you can keep it," after a passerby asked him what form of government the founders had chosen. This blog gives my views and background information on the local, state, and national political scenes. My career in higher education was mainly in the areas of international studies, foreign languages, and student advising, most recently at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, from which I retired in 2006. I have lived in West Chester since 1986.
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