Wednesday, October 17, 2012

That's Debatable

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should mention that at least part of this post was written before the second Presidential Debate had actually taken place.  I added to it after tonight's debate was complete, but only to keep my score up-to-date.  I will not attempt to critique the Townhall debate format or the performances given by the two candidates for reasons that I hope will become apparent by the end of this effort.

For those keeping score, I think that the existing debates stand at 1-1-1.  Nobody doubts that Mitt Romney won the first debate, since his competitor (the President) seemed either uninterested or just didn't show up (perhaps Eastwood's empty chair at the Republican Convention was prescient).  The Biden / Ryan debate has enough people still willing to argue over who won to call it a draw.  I'm giving this last one, though it was awfully close, to the President; not so much for what he said or did (though he did much better than his first effort), but for the glaring opportunities that Romney failed to take advantage of (and which he may come to regret before the election's over).  

I should also note that this may be another case of winning the battle and losing the war, as Romney's performance (mediocre as I thought it was) is likely to do him far more good than the President's will do him.

Last night's Townhall-style debate has little to do with classic debate and less to do with a Townhall.  The only truly amazing part of this may be the continuing ability of organizers to find an audience that's so disconnected from a campaign that's been going on for at least two decades (only years, really?), and so oblivious about how politics and government works that they remain undecided less than three weeks before an election.  All of that being said, the problem that I'm faced with is that win, lose, or draw, whether I should care or not.    

Winning a political debate these days is as much a contest of memory as it is of the positions that the candidate holds.  Days of 'debate prep' (better known as cramming in my school days) has long since turned these events into a contest over who will be able to remember their zingers under the hot lights and pressure of a nationally televised stage.  It's a example of a classic educational process that produces more functionally illiterate high school graduates every year ... memorize and regurgitate upon command.

The candidates are judged (fairly or unfairly) on their ability to memorize their talking points, along with some cherry-picked statistics, and regurgitate them when and if the opportunity presents itself. The live audience and media, like the mindlessly hungry little baby birds they are, gratefully receive these spewed talking points as if they were actual nourishment instead of mostly substance-less filler.  He who manages to upchuck the most in this battle of the political hurlers is at the end declared the winner.

The problem with all of this is one pesky little question:

What does any of that have to do with the qualities of leadership required to become President?

I mean its not like you are going to be daily challenged in front of an audience to retain esoteric data, that's what you have a cabinet fully of Secretaries and Undersecretaries (and recently, Czars) for.  It's not like the ability to fire back zingers when on a phone call in the Oval Office is going to help you get the job done right.  It's certainly not that repeating the same talking points over and over until we tune you out will move the country forward.  Debates are ultimately about winning an argument (often by fair means or foul) and little or nothing about facts or reason; and we've had too damn much of that going on in recent years.

Leading this nation is far from being the nation's 'Debater In Chief".  It's not about beating the other team, despite what we've seen lately; and in spite of the common myth, leadership is not about reaching compromise.  Oh sure, there will be debate, especially in the legislature, but the Chief Executive's job is to initiate that debate to a common purpose and moderate it to see whether what can be achieved is a goal worth reaching. Leadership is also about finding common ground upon which to build consensus of opinion; and to use that consensus to move a nation forward. 

As for what can only laughingly be called debates these days:
None of the talents of true leadership is either called upon or demonstrated in this year's multimedia circuses.  Points in the real world of governing are not achieved by encroaching on someone's personal space, and success is not achieved by mildly insulting insinuation.    

Since they are no longer the sweeping give and take on actual issues, they're not really educational.  Since they are supposedly designed around undecided voters who seem almost annoyingly unable to come to a decision between candidates, they are far too simplistic.  Since they are continuing to occur after early voting in many states has already begun, they are to some extent irrelevant.  

In fact the only really good part about looking forward is that we have only one more of these made for TV by political operative monstrosities left before election day.

Of course even that's debatable.....


Roland Hansen said...

Mi Amigo, Tim,
As I understand it then, in these verbal jousts, whether the debater comes out on top or on bottom, he is a masterdebater.

Timothy W Higgins said...

Rather than being self-gratification for the candidates Roland, I would view the current process as more of a circle jerk for the mainstream media.

When they are not doing a reach around for one candidate or another, they are performing a rather twisted form of verbal self abuse; endlessly analyzing oral discharge of the candidates and fellow pundits while stroking their own rigid views.