Because what we call “debates” during our presidential elections don’t generate a variety of images taken one at a time, I decided to wait till the conclusion of the fourth and final one last night before assessing them as a set, and a series — a playoff series, so to speak.
Before I begin, let me remind you that when Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas held their debates in 1858, they typically started after breakfast, sent their audiences home for lunch, resumed in the early afternoon and went on till dinnertime.
Those were debates, filled with complex ideas explored at length from different perspectives. These are . . . something else.
Presidential Debate 1, October 3: Obama Tanks
Obama looked untypically dejected, listless, enervated. Even old. What up wid dat? The strains of office? The rigors of the campaign trail? Oxygen deprivation in the altitude of Denver? Some private bad news?
Whatever the answer (we’ll likely never know), he did not come off well. Romney looked stronger and more assertive by far, which surely gained him points in the public’s eye. To me, he also seemed boorish, berating POTUS in an unseemly and disrespectful way. I was reminded of Clint Eastwood haranguing Invisible Obama at the Republican National Convention in August, with the subtext in both cases of the patrician white plantation owner chastising some dark-skinned chattel who’d displeased him.
I doubt that any sitting president in any previous debate has received such scornful treatment. The fact that Obama didn’t haul off and smack him one, rhetorically, made him look weak, but also made this tongue-lashing ugly. As it happens, I don’t agree that Obama deserved it, but even if I thought he did Romney’s manner in his delivery of it would have lowered him in my esteem.
That a mere 90 minutes of this, even with Obama so clearly off his game, could reverse months of Romney’s slippage in the polls mystified me. Yet that’s how the public (or at least the polled public) read it. Which suggests that, in today’s politics, you’re only as good as your most recent image, a scary thought.
Vice-Presidential Debate, October 11: The Face-Off
Paul Ryan looks eternally pained — not emotionally stressed, more sallow and constipated. This is not a guy who presents as touted, all healthy and buffed (see below). If, based strictly on appearance, I had to guess whether he or Joe Biden were in better overall physical condition for their respective ages, I’d put my money on Biden. Notable lack of charisma to this fellow. Where’s the “rock star” we’ve been promised?
Also, while there’s no such thing as an intellectual “look,” there are certainly verbal signals of intellectualism. I’ve heard nothing that qualifies as such from the mouth of the Republic Party’s vaunted intellectual-in-chief. Nothing intellectual. Nothing even wonky from their head wonk. Evasions, distractions, non sequiturs, outright lies aplenty.
I have yet to hear or read one comment of Ryan’s that’s more than a vague trust-us promise or a simplistic attack on Obama or a sentimental Mitt’s-dog-Tippy anecdote. Limited vocabulary, commentary without nuance, no skill at subtle reasoning. Keeps saying that small businesses need to “work more harder” under Obama. “Work more harder”?
Ryan had nothing to say on foreign policy and little to say on domestic policy, certainly nothing specific. Again, refusal to detail the Romney-Ryan pig-in-a-poke tax plan. Slipping in the obviously canned anecdote about Romney comforting car-crash victims, in front of a man widowed by such a crash, showed a complete lack of grace and savoir-faire.
Applying the hops metric here, Biden certainly came across as the guy I’d rather sit down with over a beer. I wouldn’t let Paul Ryan into my front yard.
Presidential Debate 2, October 16: Mitt Romney as Milo Minderbinder
Obama came out swinging in this rematch, a “town hall” session at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY. He took the fight to Romney, kept the heat on — and Romney crumbled. Under pressure from POTUS, he came across as an inept, inarticulate version of Catch-22‘s profiteering mess officer Milo Minderbinder, who, asked how his syndicate could make money by buying eggs for seven cents and reselling them for five cents, answers “Volume.”
Romney once again failed to explain how he would pay for his promised tax cuts, belligerently instructing moderator Candy Crowley that “of course the numbers add up” while refusing adamantly, as is his wont (and that of running mate Paul Ryan), to do the math publicly.
Speaking of (minder)binders . . . the dominant visual image generated by the debaters was unquestionably Romney’s unexpected “binders full of women,” which instantly went viral as an internet meme. It emerged from an anecdote into which Romney launched as a means of evading a pointed question about pay equality for women. Rather than dealing with that query, Romney digressed into a tale about finding qualified female candidates for jobs in his cabinet as governor of Massachusetts.
He announced that he’d noticed the absence of women in the short list and had asked for female prospects, after which he received from his staff “binders full of women,” resulting in his appointment of a cabinet that was 50 percent female. That surely unintended image of “binders full of women” immediately hooked the imagination of viewers, who started tweeting about it and posting sardonic images in response to it. (Perhaps, as a corollary of the concept of “citizen journalism,” we need to start speaking about “citizen op-ed” as a form of crowdsourced media commentary.)
Romney’s claim that he initiated this search for qualified female executives was quickly proven to be another in an endless string of lies he’s issued throughout his campaign. Turns out the whole story was a bald-faced fabrication from start to finish. More evidence that outright lying is not a sin, according to Mormon theology. So much for that pesky commandment about “bearing false witness.”
With this fiasco, plus his attacks on Planned Parenthood and Obamacare and his strict anti-abortion stance, Romney made it clear yet again that any woman who votes for him will get exactly what she deserves if he wins.
Presidential Debate 3, October 22: Mitt Romney as Christopher Newman
Newman, I remind you, is the successful but gauche U.S. businessman making his first trip to Europe in Henry James’s 1877 novel The American.
Once more, Obama took the fight to Romney, who essentially endorsed most of the foreign policies of the Obama administration. Aside from promising to declare China a “currency manipulator on Day One” of his administration, Romney offered no specifics on anything he’d do differently than Obama has done. His hinting that somehow he knows better than Obama how to get the Middle East to behave exactly as we’d like is simply laughable.
His insistence that the U.S. needs more nuclear submarines than the U.S. Navy has requested exposed not his savvy re the nation’s security but his ties to the military-industrial complex, while his insistence on counting the nation’s supply of ships and planes enabled Obama to saddle him with the debate’s most compelling visual image, that of “bayonets and horses,” a riposte that has also gone viral as an image.
Visibly uncomfortable talking about foreign policy, and with no accomplishments in that sphere to counterbalance Obama’s, Romney retreated to domestic issues time and again. He brought up the economy as if mention of it served magically to empower him. Yet, two weeks from the election, he still refused to spell out what he and Ryan have in mind.
Summing up the debates, then: None of the protagonists offered anything resembling a new idea. None of them explored any issue in depth. Obama (and Biden) reiterated the positions they’ve held all along. Romney — with Ryan not always happily in tow — tacked toward the center, more evidence (were any needed) that he’s fundamentally unprincipled, prepared to say just about anything to get elected.
Notably, aside from a few out-of-context snippets from public speeches that have always been available for review, the Romney campaign has failed to unearth anything earth-shattering about Obama-Biden and the first four years of their administration. That administration has been remarkably scandal-free, with no one arrested, charged, jailed, forced to resign under duress, caught with their pants down, or otherwise involved in crime or impropriety.
In fairness, the same holds true in reverse. No scandal has attached itself to the Romney-Ryan ticket. Closest to that is Romney’s persistent secretiveness about his tax returns, and the team’s unwillingness or inability to lay out the particulars of its plan to balance the budget. Both of these tactics speak volumes in and of themselves, but they contain no “October surprise” that might dramatically change the mindset of the undecided.
Barring the emergence of something new and shocking to shift the balance between now and November 6, then, the electorate faces a clear choice. It’s not the only clear choice in a long time, as some suggest; the last election, where Obama-Biden squared off against McCain-Palin, was similar in its radical differences between the two camps, and no less momentous. Still, this is not a coin-toss between Tweedledum and Tweeedledee. For that, at least, we can feel grateful.
The electorate therefore must also decide whether, insofar as foreign policy goes, they want to swap a now-seasoned seated president with four years of global diplomacy under his belt for a man with no experience whatsoever in international dealings outside the business world. They must also decide whether they’re comfortable with a vice-president who brings no significant international experience to the team.
Insofar as domestic issues go, voters have to decide whether they want to replace a sitting president who managed the passage of the Affordable Health Care Act for a newcomer who’s promised to repeal it, and a vice-president who’s the fountainhead of a budget plan no major economist takes seriously. If so, they’ll have to opt to substitute Captain Underpants and Wonk Boy, with their Magical Mystery Tour budgetary hocus-pocus, for a president with an announced economic agenda that includes rebuilding the U.S. infrastructure, growing alternative energy sources, supporting the failing educational system, and otherwise working with an eye to the future.
I haven’t found Romney-Ryan persuasive in any way — not in the debates, not at the convention, not on the campaign trail. I think they’re going down. But I could be wrong. The polls have them in a dead heat with Obama-Biden as I write this, and we have two weeks yet to go.
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This post supported by a donation from the Estate of Lyle Bongé.