Monday, October 8, 2012

Debate Dancing

actual New Yorker Magazine cover
In this debate season, it might be helpful to do a little to define the “sport.” We sometimes refer to these debates as if they were the competitive sport used to train speakers, usually high school or college students. But besides “a formal contest of argumentation in which two opposing teams defend and attack a given proposition,” a debate can be “a discussion involving opposing points,” or, as a verb, “to engage in a formal discussion or argument.” These presidential debates aren’t really much like the college sport of debate, and yet we talk about winners, as if there were formal rules and scoring. Since there aren’t, what we’re looking at is how persuasive and effective either debater was at communicating his viewpoint. In the case of presidential debates, it also includes revealing personality, and predictors about how such a person would conduct himself in the role of president. People ask, “Did he appear presidential?”

Debates are risky. You have to be good at remembering a great many details without notes. You have to be good at assessing the question and determining underlying agenda and possibly spin that could fall out from an answer. And you have to be good at expressing your viewpoint in a persuasive and positive way. And you need to appear relaxed and confident while accomplishing all this.
More people fear public speaking than death. I don’t know if the question has also been asked about debating, but it seems to me, fear of this type of debate ought to be astronomically higher than fear of simply giving a speech. Given the difficulty of the event, while a success can be a positive, failure, which seems much more likely, can hurt a lot more. President Obama will be thinking about that, and fearing possible failure in a second and third debate. He is to be pitied.
How do you meet such a challenge? It helps to be Mitt Romney: super smart, with a grasp of concepts combined with detailed memory of numbers and figures; confident and comfortable in leadership roles through long years of experience; a really nice guy with a positive approach to just about everything. He may not be the most elegant speaker we’ve seen run for office, but he’s plenty good with words, and has mostly been writing his own speeches for years. Add to that, he’s experienced and formidable in presenting his point of view.
His debate performance last Wednesday came as a surprise to many, but it shouldn’t have. He’s been this person all along. Obama’s excuse that it was a faux Romney at the debate, instead of the one on the campaign trail, is exactly opposite of true. Obama’s team, including help from fawning media, portrayed Romney as out of touch with hard working Americans, gaffe prone, stiff, dim, and uncool. And then they believed themselves, rather than, as a winning basketball coach would do, watching films of the opposing team. How ridiculous is it to claim that Romney was comfortable, articulate, relaxed, powerful, in touch with working people and their plight, and with a full grasp of the facts—because he somehow faked it? Maybe with crib notes on a handkerchief? Really?
Let’s take a look at some of the better moments, a pattern that seems to work: defend strongly but briefly, and then go on the offensive with your position. I learned of the backward-step-pivot-forward move during last winter’s primary debates, and I think that’s what we’re looking at again. Sometimes there are some other steps going on, that I don’t have terms for, but they’re working too.
Romney took his opening statement second. He dispelled the myth that he has no sense of humor when he quipped that, on the President’s anniversary, “I'm sure this was the most romantic place you could imagine here—here with me.” Then, while the President missed the opportunity, Romney quickly laid out the five points of his plan, belying Obama’s claim that Romney has no plan:
·         One, get us energy independent, North American energy independent. That creates about four million jobs.
·         Number two, open up more trade, particularly in Latin America; crack down on China if and when they cheat.
·         Number three, make sure our people have the skills they need to succeed and the best schools in the world. We're far away from that now.
·         Number four, get us to a balanced budget.
·         Number five, champion small business.
Moderator Jim Lehrer then gave the President a chance to respond. He changed the order and twisted specifics toward the left, but his list was almost copycat:
·         First, we've got to improve our education system….
·         When it comes to our tax code, Governor Romney and I both agree that our corporate tax rate is too high. So I want to lower it, particularly for manufacturing, taking it down to 25 percent. But I also want to close those loopholes that are giving incentives for companies that are shipping jobs overseas.
·         On energy, Governor Romney and I, we both agree that we've got to boost American energy production. And oil and natural gas production are higher than they've been in years. But I also believe that we've got to look at the energy source of the future, like wind and solar and biofuels, and make those investments.
·         Now, in order for us to do it, we do have to close our deficit.
The closest he comes to “championing small business” is to “make those investments” in solar and biofuels. But then he makes an attack that gives Romney a beautiful opportunity to set the record straight. And he does it repeatedly:
Governor Romney's central economic plan calls for a $5 trillion tax cut, on top of the extension of the Bush tax cuts, so that's another $2 trillion, and $2 trillion in additional military spending that the military hasn't asked for. That's $8 trillion.
The problem is, not only is that not Romney’s “central economic plan,” it bears no resemblance to his plan at all. It’s a fabrication of Romney’s plan invented by leftist think tanks and spouted repeatedly by the Obama campaign. So now there’s an opportunity for Romney to clear up this misconception before 60 million interested viewers.
First of all, I don't have a $5 trillion tax cut. I don't have a tax cut of a scale that you're talking about. My view is that we ought to provide tax relief to people in the middle class. But I'm not going to reduce the share of taxes paid by high- income people. High-income people are doing just fine in this economy. They'll do fine whether you're president or I am.
This is the brief, strong defense, the backward-step. Then comes the pivot to turn the topic in the direction of his choice:
The people who are having the hard time right now are middle- income Americans. Under the president's policies, middle-income Americans have been buried. They're — they're just being crushed. Middle-income Americans have seen their income come down by $4,300. This is a — this is a tax in and of itself. I'll call it the economy tax. It's been crushing. The same time, gasoline prices have doubled under the president, electric rates are up, food prices are up, health care costs have gone up by $2,500 a family.
Middle-income families are being crushed. And so the question is how to get them going again, and I've described it. It's energy and trade, the right kind of training programs, balancing our budget and helping small business. Those are the — the cornerstones of my plan.
He has even managed to sneak in Biden’s phrase about the middle-class being “buried,” skillfully done without rancor or even apparent irony. He follows this with another list, including more detail contrasting his plan with Obama’s record:
·         First, education. I agree, education is key, particularly the future of our economy. But our training programs right now, we got 47 of them housed in the federal government, reporting to eight different agencies. Overhead is overwhelming. We got to get those dollars back to the states and go to the workers so they can create their own pathways to getting the training they need for jobs that will really help them.
·         The second area: taxation. We agree; we ought to bring the tax rates down, and I do, both for corporations and for individuals. But in order for us not to lose revenue, have the government run out of money, I also lower deductions and credits and exemptions so that we keep taking in the same money when you also account for growth.
·         The third area: energy. Energy is critical, and the president pointed out correctly that production of oil and gas in the U.S. is up. But not due to his policies. In spite of his policies. Mr. President, all of the increase in natural gas and oil has happened on private land, not on government land. On government land, your administration has cut the number of permits and licenses in half. If I'm president, I'll double them. And also get the—the oil from offshore and Alaska. And I'll bring that pipeline in from Canada.
It’s almost as if he could end this exchange with, “Thank you, Mr. President, for allowing me to clear up so many wrong assertions about me.” He championed states’ rights as a better way to improve education. He clarified the misconception that lower taxes result in lower revenue—in about as brief a lesson as can be done. And he took away the President’s claims about energy simply by pointing out the facts. Wow!
This was a stinging beginning.
In the very next exchange, Obama repeats the “$5 trillion tax cut on top of $2 trillion of additional spending for our military” claim. Mr. Lehrer begins to interrupt, possibly to give Romney a chance to respond, or possibly to point out that this was already answered. I don’t know. But the President stops the interruption and claims he’s about to make an important point. And then he repeats the same claim—again.
Romney answers this repeated charge with one of the best segments of the debate.
Virtually everything he just said about my tax plan is inaccurate…. If the tax plan he described were a tax plan I was asked to support, I'd say absolutely not. I'm not looking for a $5 trillion tax cut. What I've said is I won't put in place a tax cut that adds to the deficit. That's part one. So there's no economist can say Mitt Romney's tax plan adds $5 trillion if I say I will not add to the deficit with my tax plan.
Number two, I will not reduce the share paid by high-income individuals. I—I know that you and your running mate keep saying that, and I know it's a popular thing to say with a lot of people, but it's just not the case. Look, I got five boys. I'm used to people saying something that's not always true, but just keep on repeating it and ultimately hoping I'll believe it—(scattered laughter)—but that—that is not the case, all right? I will not reduce the taxes paid by high-income Americans.
And number three, I will not, under any circumstances, raise taxes on middle-income families. I will lower taxes on middle-income families. Now, you cite a study. There are six other studies that looked at the study you describe and say it's completely wrong. I saw a study that came out today that said you're going to raise taxes by $3,000 to $4,000 on—on middle-income families. There are all these studies out there.
But let's get to the bottom line. That is, I want to bring down rates. I want to bring down the rates down, at the same time lower deductions and exemptions and credits and so forth so we keep getting the revenue we need.
And you think, well, then why lower the rates? And the reason is because small business pays that individual rate. Fifty-four percent of America's workers work in businesses that are taxed not at the corporate tax rate but at the individual tax rate. And if we lower that rate, they will be able to hire more people.
For me, this is about jobs.
Just for the record, the Obama campaign, when pressed, had to admit in the days following the debate that Romney was correct; his plan never included anything like a $5 Trillion tax cut (plus all the additions the President kept adding on). Romney has the opportunity—again—to defend himself briefly, and then go on offense by laying out his actual plan: backward-step-pivot-forward.
But there’s more! I highlighted a section there. Without having to say anything offensive or negative (no, “You dirty, rotten liar!”) he is able to show that Obama’s insistence on repeating the lie, even after it’s been answered, is juvenile. Everyone can see it. There’s a grown-up on the stage and a whiny little boy-man. It’s a devastating blow. It’s delivered without anger or negatives. It’s unanswerable.
How does the President answer it? By scuffing his foot and saying, “Nuh uh; I’m right.”: “Well, for 18 months he's been running on this tax plan. And now, five weeks before the election, he's saying that his big, bold idea is ‘never mind.’"
There’s so much to enjoy in this debate. But we’ve probably done enough for now. There’s just this one little exchange, between Romney and the moderator, that I find amusing:
Mr. Lehrer: Excuse me. Just so everybody understands—we're way over our first 15 minutes.
Mr. Romney: It's fun, isn't it?
Mr. Lehrer: It's OK. It's great. 

Mitt Romney does this for fun. I’d find that impossible to believe, except that we have similar “fun” at our dinner table and family gatherings—but without the high stakes and millions of viewers.  

One thing is certain: we saw the real Romney in that first debate. And I think we also saw at least a glimpse of the real Obama.

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