Tell Me Something I Don’t Know

Last Wednesday night was the first Presidential Debate of the 2012 election. While highly anticipated, it was really only a platform for both Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama to espouse the same taglines and attack lines they have been using for the past several months, except this time people watched them say it all side by side. Much less of a heated throw-down, it was a long winded and poorly structured cure for insomnia.

The topic up for debate was Domestic Policy. The debate was divided into six 15-minute segments, three of which were devoted to various economic issues.  These were followed by segments on Health Care, the Role of Government, and Governing. Each candidate was supposed to have two minutes to answer questions posed by moderator Jim Lehrer in each segment. However, this format was unable to contain either candidate, as they both barreled through their time limits and often went off in their own direction apart from the question. This was rather disappointing, given the statement made by one of the co-chairmen of the Commission on Presidential Debates, Frank Fahrenkopf, before the debate:

“The commission for a long time has wrestled with the question of how can we get more depth in discussion on the issues that are so important to the American people in making a decision who they’re going to vote for.”

Clearly this is not the answer, or perhaps a much more forceful debate moderator is needed to fully implement it.

Many of the questions posed also seemed to invite a lack of discussion, encouraging candidates to merely define their positions at each other, rather than debate with each other. For example, the first question posed by Jim Lehrer was:

“What are the major differences between the two of you about how you would go about creating new jobs?”

While this was supposed to last for only 15 minutes, the candidates instead took this opportunity to outline their entire economic plans, and throughout the debate, the candidates consistently maneuvered the discussion away from the question to instead talk about whatever they wanted.

While the format of the debate clearly failed, many believe that Mitt Romney came out on top. Compared to the President, who appeared tired and disinterested, Romney, arguably for the first time, looked passionate, and had a clear command of an array of statistics to supplement his points. It was clear that all of the preparation he put into this debate paid off. Obama, however, used statistics and numbers as his points, rather than his usual use of ideological attacks against Republican principles, and was far less interesting because of it. While the accuracy and general factualness of both candidates’ arguments, especially those used by Romney, have been discredited by non-partisan fact checkers like Politifact, Romney managed to use them in a way that not only roused his supporters but also seemed to speak to undecided middle class voters.

“We look for discovery and innovation, all these things desired out of the American heart to provide the pursuit of happiness for our citizens.” said Romney at one point in the debate, “But we also believe in maintaining for individuals the right to pursue their dreams and not to have the government substitute itself for the rights of free individuals. And what we’re seeing right now is, in my view, a — a trickle-down government approach, which has government thinking it can do a better job than free people pursuing their dreams. And it’s not working.”

Here, Romney effectively outlines his view on the role of government, but does so in a way that specifically reaches out to and inspires the people.

“The first role of the federal government is to keep the American people safe,” President Obama said in a similar moment, “As commander-in-chief, that is something that I’ve worked on and thought about every single day that I’ve been in the Oval Office. But I also believe that government has the capacity, the federal government has the capacity to help open up opportunity and create ladders of opportunity and to create frameworks where the American people can succeed.”

By comparison, Obama’s statement seems far more impersonal.

While a success for Romney, this debate is ultimately unlikely to have any substantial impact on the final election, as the slate is essentially reset when the next debate starts. The next Presidential debate is on Tuesday October 16, and will cover Domestic and Foreign Policy issues in a town hall format. In the meantime, we can look forward to the Vice-Presidential Debate between Paul Ryan and Joe Biden on October 11, also tackling issues of Foreign and Domestic Policy.

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