Obama v. Romney: A Critique of the Culture of Debate

Many are saying that Obama “won,” that is, we won, the second presidential debate. I find this to be untrue, at least in the bigger picture, and unfortunately so.

Let us take a brief look at the recent events that led up to this debate. Prior to the debates, Romney was heavily down in the polls. The generally accepted view was that his only chance to overturn the scores would be some remarkable (almost magical) landslide at the presidential debates. But that, it was stressed, would be highly unlikely. After all, how much difference could a debate make? We already know the positions of the sides by heart; nothing substantively new or sufficiently remarkable could be stated so as to halt, let alone counter, Romney’s overwhelming flight downwards. Or is it? Romney showed up to the first debate like his life depended on it. True enough: the contents of the respective positions are known in advance and could not make much difference. But the performance could. Romney would be aggressive, precise, and most importantly, attack Obama directly (with the minimal courtesy and respect due, of course) at every occasion. He would show the American people who the true leader is, and what a terrible mistake they are making. Obama and his camp seem to have been caught off guard, overly confident, underestimating both Romney’s resilience and the potential importance of the debate.

Romney came to the first debate, so to speak, to the kill, and one of the main reasons for Obama’s “loss” was that he did not respond in kind. Romney was attacking, speaking directly to and about Obama, yet he did not heed to Romney’s rhythm. Obama stuck to his own tempo and demeanor, while on a few occasions being taken aback. This made him look “weak” and “tired,” even confused compared to Romney’s sharpness. This, it seems to me, simply confirms Obama’s most characteristic and compelling traits, and part of his particular nobility as a politician.

Ever since his first campaign, Obama made it a point to speak positively rather than negatively, to minimize the attacks on the other party (be it domestic or foreign) and maximize the talk of promise, change, improvement, and collective efforts; to minimize the language of fear and threat and maximize the talk of hope (let us put aside for now the fact that many of his promises he failed to live up to in practice –the promises and the promising at least were good).

By “winning” so decisively, what Romney proved in that first debate is what, by now, we all sadly know: aggression, especially in politics, wins the day. If you’re not aggressive, especially when the other side is, you are “wimpy” and a shadow, “disengaged.” This is allegedly true whether your opponent is a Republican or a terrorist, a Romney or an Ahmadinejad. In my opinion, this macho ideology may well be politically effective, but it is absolutely false and contradictory. To be able to focus on one’s own strengths and vision rather than on the other’s flaws and blindness, to speak the truth instead of calling out the other’s lies, to respond and resist non-violently to the other’s violence, the more so the more the other pushes (and the other will push, if only out of panic), is a show of power and resoluteness, not weakness. It was indeed a show of power and nobility that Obama (whatever flaws he might otherwise have) refrained, in the first debate, from mentioning or manipulating the poisonous and self-destructive remarks that Romney had been making, including the particularly sad one about the “47 percent.” The best way to counter this kind of divisive and patronizing approach is to ignore it, not to honor it with mention (especially given that it is common knowledge: Obama would be saying nothing new by bringing it up).

However, sure enough, Obama and his camp have “learned their lesson”. The first debate was the perfect reminder of what the “public” wants and to what it favorably responds. The situation in the second debate (as is often the case in sports) was reversed. Obama came up as the surprising underdog, and it was now the Romney camp that was caught off guard, overly confident, underestimating the underdog’s ability to talk that talk. This, in my opinion, is the lowdown of Tuesday night’s show: Having been pushed to the corner in the previous debate, Obama was forced to play their game, in their field. In that sense, the entire second debate was set within and framed by a Republican victory; it was a reactive move, and perhaps just as panicked and out of desperation as Romney’s had been in the first. Among other things, we could see Obama nearly mimicking the “enumerating” rhetoric used by Romney in the first debate to suggest that he is not talking “abstractly” (“We will do three things. Number one… Number two… Number three…,” all with the adjacent finger counting gesture).

Obama indeed managed to win it their way, in their field. It is, I admit, impressive. But his win is at the same time his loss and ours, certainly in the longer run. The “fierceness” of this debate — already celebrated by some as the “best” one ever– no doubt set a precedent for future debates, near and the far; a future that, from where I stand, seems rather bleak. The operation code is now to be direct and aggressive. The understanding is that, if played this way, debates have true transformative pull at the polls. To use the boxing metaphor that Obama is actually rather fond of using: Each opponent must keep his (or her) face and body shielded with the one hand, and, with the other, watch for the bare and vulnerable areas of the opponent’s. Each must take advantage of the opportunities unwittingly given by the other, and be sure to strike back whenever the other does. A lot of it has to do with timing: one must time one’s blows, and the expenditure of one’s energy and ammunition. The mentioning of the 47% remark, to cite one particularly good example, was brought up right on time, at the debate’s closing statement. Well played, Mr. President, we were eagerly waiting for this punch.

Who is steering at the wheel I am not at all sure, but for some time now our ship is steadily drifting to the right, and not only in the United States, in most of the electoral democracies. Divisiveness, intimidation, aggression, and warmongering may not help to win wars (nor, perhaps, are they meant to), but they certainly help winning elections. Obama’s notable victory Tuesday night, I am afraid, only served to remind us of, and perhaps to consolidate and accelerate, this overall direction.