#74 Debates Don’t Matter Much

On October 9, 2012

Hello Everyone,

The last few days of endless analysis of the first presidential debate has, I must admit, annoyed me.

 I have a decidedly minority opinion on presidential debates.  I don’t think they matter much.  Presidential temperament and authenticity does.  One of my friends said that Obama’s debate problem was that he was being “too presidential.”

 Remember that national polls don’t matter much, either.  In the 2008 Democratic primary, only delegates mattered, not the popular vote.  Likewise, only the swing states matter now.  President Obama is looking very good there.

Since the debates come in prime time – like American Idol, Hardball or WrestleMania – they seem to be judged largely on the basis of their entertainment value.  Who was more aggressive or passionate; who made the best eye contact; who landed the best zingers.  Indeed, who gave the best “performance.” 

On this latter point, I, too, would give the nod emphatically to Gov. Romney. In the flash of an eye, after a year and a half or longer pretending to be a Tea Party kind of guy, he was unashamedly back to playing the “Massachusetts Moderate.”  Quite a performance.  Largely fictional.

My wife, Penny Sebring, observed that Democrats criticize Gov. Romney for repeatedly morphing from one personality to another, trying to be someone he’s not, but when it comes to debates, Democrats want Obama to become someone he’s not.

Debates don’t matter much.  Look at the last primaries and the general election.

In September 2008, John Broder wrote a piece in the New York Times about Obama’s “uneven record as a debater” in the primaries (see Attachment 1).

Senator Barack Obama has shown himself at times to be a great orator. His debating skills, however, have been uneven.

Some of his chief strengths — his facility with words, his wry detachment, his reasoning skills, his youthful cool — have not always served him well and may pose significant vulnerabilities in the series of presidential debates that begins Friday, according to political analysts and a review of his earlier debate performances…

He exudes disdain for the quips and sound bites that some deride as trivializing political debates but that have become a central part of scoring them. He tends to the earnest and humorless when audiences seem to crave passion and personality. He frequently rises above the mire of political combat when the battle calls for engagement…

Those who watched his debate performances during the long primary season say he improved markedly from a fairly shaky start but never really mastered the form. [There were about two dozen debates in the 2008 Democratic primary.]…

One of Mr. Obama’s worst moments came in the first Democratic debate, in South Carolina in April 2007…

Perhaps Mr. Obama’s single worst debate moment came [in January 2008] in New Hampshire…

By the final debate of the primary season, on April 16 [2008] in Philadelphia, Mr. Obama was both more polished and at times exasperated by the process…

Last time I checked, Sen. Obama beat seven primary challengers, including Sen. Hillary Clinton, and Sen. McCain in the general.  Sen. Obama’s “uneven record” as a debater didn’t seem to matter much.

In Obamagram #6, in May 2007 – a full one and a half years before the election and after the first primary debates — I cited two incisive articles when writing:

Combined, these articles give us some perspectives on the depth and range of Barack’s intellect and his deliberative temperament.  You can see why eight-person, sound-bite debates are not his best forum.  As his wife, Michelle, is reported to have said, “It takes sixty seconds for him to clear his throat.” [I have been accused of that, too!]

One of those articles – the one from The New Yorker – gave us insights into Obama’s temperament, shedding light on the frequent criticism of his effectiveness as a debater (see Attachment 2):

[His] mode…is often called professorial…But “professorial” implies that he seems cerebral or didactic, and he doesn’t…Probably one of the reasons for this is that Obama seems not to attach much value to cleverness as such.  Even in law school, perhaps the place more than any other where sheer cleverness is prized and love of argument for its own sake is fundamental to the culture, he was not much interested in academic jousting.  No, Obama’s detachment, his calm…is less professorial than medical – like that of a doctor who, by listening to a patient’s story without emotional reaction…It is also doctorly in the sense that Obama thinks about the body politic as a whole thing…if you take unity seriously, as Obama does, then outrage does not make sense, any more than it would make sense for a doctor to express outrage that a patient’s kidney is causing pain in his back.  There is also, of course, a racial aspect to this.  “If you’re a black male, you don’t have to try hard to impress people with your aggression,” [a friend] says…

Obama’s calm is also a matter of temperament.  [Remember that from the beginning, I have written that I support him because of his “temperament, intellect and worldview.”] The first thing almost everybody who knows Obama says about him is how extremely comfortable he is with himself.  “He was almost freakishly self-possessed and centered,” [one of his law professors said.]…[It’s] like the unnatural stillness of someone able to lower his blood pressure at will.”…

He was grounded, comfortable in his own skin, knew who he was, where he came from, why he believed things,” a friend from Harvard says…

The David Brooks article I cited in #6 also helps to explain why Obama is not a great debater – he embraces nuance and complexity.  In 2007, when Brooks asked Sen. Obama out of the blue if he had read Reinhold Niebuhr, Sen. Obama quickly and adeptly synthesized Niebuhr’s philosophy (see #50), going on to say, “I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain.  And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things.  But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction.  I take away…the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”

In my opinion, Obama’s thinking is just too deep and his temperament is just too calm to consistently deliver a good debate “performance” for a prime time television audience.  But, the evidence so far suggests that it just doesn’t matter much. 

Please, as always, pass it on.  And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com  




adobe pdf fileAttachment 1 – Broder – Obama Carries Uneven Record… – NYT – 9-23-08

adobe pdf fileAttachment 2 – MacFarquhar – The Conciliator – The New Yorker – 5-7-07


Comments are closed.