Like many Americans, I’ve become increasingly frustrated with the presidential election as we move closer to voting day. The uptick in bickering, truth-stretching and, in some cases, outright lying has left me jaded and on the verge of tuning out the rest of this mangled horse race. Last week’s presidential debate, despite my hopes, did absolutely nothing to change that.
I don’t think a clear winner emerged from the debate, although Mr. Romney was decidedly the more assertive of the two. President Obama seemed distracted and lifeless, while Governor Romney came off as smug and overbearing. And while both refrained from sparring over petty gaffes, neither candidate fully engaged with the policy issues at hand: economic recovery, job growth and deficit reduction, among others.
Most of the night went a bit like this: President Obama made claims about Governor Romney’s economic plans, many of which the Governor summarily dismissed as falsehoods. For example, President Obama rightly questioned Romney’s tax math — whether he can implement tax cuts without adding to the deficit — and Romney, without any elaboration, countered that his plans would not add to the national debt. This is about as wonky as it got.
Compared to President Clinton’s stellar policy speech at the Democratic convention, Romney and Obama look more like inexperienced high school debaters, trading nonsequitors and marshaling weak evidence to support their claims.
President Clinton, in his DNC speech, showed us that policy is interesting and relevant and it can make for good television. He was able to humanize broad public policy issues in a way that I haven’t seen from either Mr. Obama or Mr. Romney.
If the American people want to be treated like adults, if they want thorough debates on public policy issues — and the popularity of Clinton’s speech showed that they do — then why are they not getting it? Why was last week’s debate so superficial?
Presidential debates, like everything else in modern political campaigns, are not designed to foster a robust exchange of ideas. They are not designed to elevate the public discourse. Rather, the debates are another outlet for candidates to spin their respective narratives. Campaigns do not live and die by the merits of their ideas. Their fates are determined by how well candidates are able to tie their policy goals to broader emotional narratives.
At the debate, President Obama and Governor Romney did not meet to hash out details of their specific agendas. They did not cover exactly how Romney’s pledge to cut taxes, but not raise the deficit, makes budgetary sense or how President Obama will put the long-term unemployed back to work. They met to convince you to believe in their respective ideological narratives, despite what facts and empirical evidence show.
NPR’s Planet Money team recently broadcast a brilliant episode that discusses exactly how economic ideas are packaged for public consumption in commercials, speeches and debates. First, Planet Money gathered some of the country’s best economists — both liberal and conservative — to put together a “dream” platform. This platform included such things as eliminating the mortgage-interest tax deduction, legalizing marijuana, eliminating corporate taxes and others. The team then engaged two political consultants to develop a campaign strategy around these ideas.
The consultants were aghast at many of the proposals, though they did make attempts at developing messaging strategy around the fake platform. Their most important point was this: people vote with their emotions, not intellect. Economic ideas must be translated into emotional appeals, into narratives that encapsulate American identity.
This is why the debate you saw last week was incredibly lacking in real policy discussions. The mostly ineffectual Jim Lehrer did not help either.
No one candidate, party or institution is to blame for the current state of affairs in presidential politics. Ever since the dawn of television, campaigns have come to resemble feature films more and more. Fixing this will not be easy. But, unless we demand more nuanced and informed campaign rhetoric, we’ll keep getting the same blend of misrepresentations, ideological posturing and denialism that we have come to expect from our presidential candidates.