2016 Presidential Debate #3

The Thinker by Rodin

Generally I look forward to presidential debates. They only happen every four years, they matter tremendously and you get to see candidates confront one another and try to respond coherently to questions live in front of millions. It’s very high stakes stuff and excellent theater. Not this year. The first debate made me nervous. The second debate made me physically sick. Last night’s debate made me glad they were over.

Perhaps it was something of an improvement over the second debate. Donald Trump was still nasty of course (at one point by calling Hillary Clinton “nasty”) but was kept behind a podium instead of wandering the stage and using his bulk to intimidate Clinton. For the first thirty minutes or so, Trump managed to look sober and didn’t interrupt. You knew though that it would not last, and as it winded on and as moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News got into the more inflammatory questions it quickly became pass the Pepto Bismol time.

What made the headlines of course was Trump’s assertion that he would not automatically accept the results of the election. Both Clinton and Chris Wallace called him out, citing numerous authorities that our election system worked well and accurately reported results. Of course Trump would not back down. He just said he’ll see. If he loses and does not concede defeat it would make him the first candidate since 1860 to question the results of a presidential election. In 1860 Abraham Lincoln’s election led to the Civil War. His remarks put Republican candidates in even bigger jeopardy, as everyone now wants to know if they agree with Trump.

Clinton was cool, confident and returned volley for volley, which likely triggered Trump’s “wicked” remark about Hillary. Mostly she smiled and looked great; doubtless the campaign is paying for an excellent makeup artist. Perhaps it was just her seemingly uppity attitude that set Trump off. Apparently in his mind women aren’t allowed to be uppity and he clearly doesn’t like being challenged.

Clinton was also coherent whereas Trump frequently made factual errors. Overall though he seemed better informed than the first debate, suggesting he at least did a little preparation. It was excruciatingly hard to parse through his thoughts as he rarely completed sentences. Rather they stretched on and on with miscellaneous thoughts coming in an ad hoc manner in the middle of them. And what debate with Donald Trump would be complete without packs of lies that are easily fact checked and in fact were reused from previous debates? In short he was hardly anymore convincing in this debate than he was during the other debates. If he convinced any new voters, they were likely only a handful. Instead, he catered to his core supporters and he can’t win an election with just them.

So basically no minds were changed which made the debate kind of pointless, unless you were there to hear more about what Hillary Clinton would do for the country. Chris Wallace asked her to talk about her husband’s infidelity but she deftly dodged the issue and used her two minutes to question Trump’s instead and to highlight his sexist attitudes toward women. She leaned left on many issues in the debate, particularly in the areas of abortion rights and supporting Planned Parenthood. She refused to be characterized as anti-gun, while supporting modest, common sense laws prohibiting or limiting gun purchases for narrowly targeted people. She knew all she really needed to do was show up, sound coherent and act presidential. She had to goof up to change the dynamics of the race, but did use opportunities to bait Trump so he would fall into his own traps.

Anyhow, thank goodness it’s over. I’m hoping four years from now I can look forward to these debates again. I had to force myself to watch them, which is unusual to say the least. I noticed that for all his bravado after the debate Trump’s shoulders were slumped, a nonverbal admission perhaps that his denouement had already started and he knew he was beaten.

2016 Presidential Debate #1

The Thinker by Rodin

I won’t lie and claim I wasn’t nervous about yesterday’s first presidential debate between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump. Perhaps on some level I believed that Trump could pull a Houdini act: act reasonably, look professional and presidential, and sound informed. Granted that it had never happened before but in the pit of my stomach was this fear that even calmly examining the facts could not assuage.

Why was I so nervous? Because of the stakes. This election has no parallel that I can think of in American politics. Trump’s election would likely be catastrophic for the country due to his constant lies, frequently shifting positions, stunning ignorance on global and national affairs and his infamous temperament. This is a man who when he got a national security briefing about our nuclear weapons wanted to know whey we didn’t use them proactively. This should make any sane person start to sweat, and it certainly made me sweat. Not being the praying sort, I confess I briefly prayed for Hillary to find a way to decisively trounce Trump. It’s not necessarily that our country deserves this gift of grace from the Almighty. The United States is long overdue for a cosmic kick in the ass, and Trump seemed the ideal vehicle to get it.

So I fiddled with a toy during the debate, willing to hear it but finding it hard to watch it. I needed distraction. However it quickly became clear to me that my worries were specious. By the time it was over I had chilled and found myself grinning as Hillary Clinton deftly and expertly pressed all of Donald Trump’s buttons, leading to his self implosion.

Does this mean the debate changed the shape of the election? No. As I noted in my last post, the dynamics of this election are baked into our polarized country. I do expect Clinton to win, hope for a landslide, but expect it will be a win by a few percentage points. If there is one vanishing species in our country, it’s the undecided voter. While there are plenty of erstwhile independents, in fact most of them usually vote for the same party. Our states have naturally polarized over these last few decades between the “me” (red) states and the “we” (blue) states. Demographics favor “we” states in national elections, providing Democrats come out to vote.

It turned out that Hillary’s decades of being reviled provided her with plenty of experience to neuter and frustrate Donald Trump. This is not exactly unfamiliar territory for Hillary so she has learned how to turn it to her advantage. It meant smiling confidently while continuously pushing Trump’s buttons. This predictably allowed Trump to showcase his worst side, and it got worse as the debate progressed due to all the friendly fire. In most of the attacks, Trump joined in digging himself into a deeper hole. For example, he alluded that he really hadn’t paid much in the way of income taxes, as if this was a good thing.

Hillary pointed to numerous positions that Trump repeatedly pointlessly denied. Even his supporters didn’t believe him; they knew him too well and certainly didn’t care. Her attacks on his character were deftly done, but none more so than calling him on his misogyny and fat shaming of women, made more hilarious because Trump is obese. Trump being Trump doubled down on this again today, simply proving Hillary’s point.

It was pretty much a perfect strike for Hillary, with at best a wayward pin wobbling for a bit before eventually tumbling. It changed few minds, but it certainly cemented opinions about Trump. Those who were wavering on voting for Trump had no grounds to now support him. Moreover, Hillary rallied her own base, particularly women who are strongly behind her. Since this is a turnout election, she gave tepid Trump supporters plenty of reasons to stay home instead of vote, and plenty of red meat for Democrats to vote come hell or high water.

The funniest thing is that Trump, the master bully, really didn’t understand that he had been masterfully played. Bullies suffer from cognitive dissonance. Those of you that have read my 2012 essay on political bullying will see that Clinton followed the playbook for dealing with them. Bullies can’t be silenced but their forces can be redirected in counterproductive ways that can cause them to trip over their own feet. That is what Clinton accomplished last night: showing that this would be emperor had no clothes and that he was incoherent at best and dangerous at worst. Her smiling showed that nothing he could say would stick. Her unwillingness to respond to every interruption he caused showed she was civilized and statesmanlike.

So maybe my prayer was answered but more likely I was simply too nervous. The lies, misstatements and sheer incoherence of Trump’s statements were breathtaking. Much of it made no sense whatsoever, and even his claims changed within the same sentences. Hillary raised the red flag, let the bully act true to form and he fell into the lion’s den.

Let’s hope she can keep this up for the next two debates. Perhaps Trump will learn from his mistakes, but for someone who admits to no mistakes it’s likely his personal carnage will continue in the next debates. Stay tuned.

The last debate

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s probably a good thing that most Americans are geography impaired. Many Americans cannot tell you what their neighboring states are, let alone pick out Iran or Syria on a globe. Mitt Romney seems to fall into this category as well, since during yesterday’s presidential debate he came up with the preposterous claim that Iran needed to help Syria so it could have access to the world’s oceans. Maybe he confused the landlocked Afghanistan with Iran. In any event, Iran has plenty of access to the world’s oceans as the southern part of Iran presses up against the Persian Gulf, and it depends on access to it to export most of its oil.

Overall, yesterday’s debate with President Obama did not reflect well on Romney’s grasp of foreign policy. Worse, he could not draw clear distinctions between how his policies would vary from Obama’s. He either tacitly or explicitly agreed with most of Obama’s policies, the inescapable implication being that Obama was doing a good job as commander in chief. Moreover, he drew a lot of false conclusions. For example, he criticized the president for turmoil in the Middle East, as if it was his fault. Even the casual observer of the Middle East understands that revolution, particularly in that part of the world, requires turmoil. It’s an area where democracy is virtually unknown and despots are aplenty. His reasoning is also suspect because it suggests that we can actually control the political process underway across the Middle East. All we can really do is attempt to influence policy by reaching out to leaders, the opposition, and by working with other countries to affect jointly desirable outcomes, such as ending Iran’s nuclear program.

We have tried using force to get our way and it didn’t work in Iraq, although we did squander hundreds of billions of dollars before a wiser president than Bush got us out of Iraq. Sadly, I predict the same will be true in Afghanistan as proved true in Iraq. Yes, we will be out by the end of 2014. Even Romney wants that to occur. But Afghan troops will be no more ready to take control of their country than Iraqi troops were. Afghanistan is likely to look a lot like Iraq in 2015, likely with no clear winner but with a heavy and destabilizing Talibani influence but the government retaining control in most major cities. But we’ll be out of there and most importantly al Qaeda will not be coming back. They will wisely stay out of Afghanistan. The Taliban will not let them back in, as they lost power the last time they let them in. The Taliban knows that as long as they make mischief only within their borders that we will leave them alone. That’s the bottom line in Afghanistan that both sides know we will accept, just not state publicly.

President Obama demonstrated a firm grasp of these nuances, and rightly called Romney out on some of his more absurd statements, like his fretting that our navy had fewer ships than at any time since World War One. Aircraft carriers did not even exist then. One aircraft carrier today is the equivalent of dozens if not hundreds of navy ships in the World War One era. It’s actually much more than that since it allows us to project a large concentration of air power at trouble spots across the world.

Both Obama and Romney found plenty of reasons to talk about domestic policy, since most Americans yawn at foreign policy. As usual, the moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS Newswas caught in the middle and had trouble bringing their focus back to foreign policy. By this point in the campaign there was really nothing that either candidate could state that Americans had not heard before. Instead, the casual listener could only go with gut assessments of the candidate. Obama looked the image of the sober commander in chief he has been. Romney looked again like he was trying to imitate Ronald Reagan, not succeeding very well and seemed a bit trigger happy as well.

The sad fact for Republicans was that the debate was a sure loser for them. Americans overwhelmingly approve of Obama’s foreign policy. We are out of Iraq, and are getting out of Afghanistan. We are war weary, so Romney’s saber rattling fell flat. It was not surprising then that Romney was happy to turn the conversation to domestic policy, where he holds better cards. Overall, Americans see no compelling reason to spend lavishly on defense at this time, particularly when we are entering an era of austerity and the obvious foreign threats against us are diminishing. Moreover, it is astonishing to most of us who pay attention to foreign policy that Russia is our biggest national security threat, as Romney recently asserted. The Cold War is long over. Russia retains an impressive nuclear arsenal but does not appear to have any imperialistic desires at the moment. It has its hands full controlling its own population.

In short, Romney got pwned last night. By the end of the debate it seemed that Romney knew it as well.

The second debate

The Thinker by Rodin

As a political junkie, I confess that I watch presidential debates not so much to learn what candidates believe on a variety of issues (which, of course, I already know) but for their pure entertainment value. Arguably, presidential debates are primarily theater. Unlike theater these debates can have real world consequences: the acquisition of power. So they tend to excite me much more than a good movie, in part because they are so rare.

In the first debate I felt cheated and a bit angry because to the extent that President Obama was acting, he was playing the role of Mr. Spock, where he is most comfortable. That left Mitt Romney to own the debate because he seemed to be the only one participating. The vice presidential debate was more theatrical than the first presidential debate, but with Biden’s many childish actions it was overall disappointing.

As theater, last night’s debate did not disappoint and proved to be hugely entertaining, as President Obama and Mitt Romney engaged in an elaborate fistfight, albeit without using real fists. If they were horses, they would have been both chomping at the bits. Unlike the first debate, President Obama largely owned this debate. However, Mitt Romney made a respectable showing. If it were a horserace, he would not have been more than two lengths behind the President at the finish line.

Since innumerable pundits have picked so much about the debate apart I won’t go into many of these already stated points. Romney’s remarks about women and binders went right over me, not because I am a man, but because I knew what he meant to say. On this issue (which was really a question about equal pay for women) what struck me is that Romney really never answered the question, leaving the implication that unequal pay based on sex doesn’t bother him.

I expected Obama to mention Romney’s often stated 47% statement (that 47% of Americans will vote for Obama because they are dependents of the government) at the start of the debate. Yet it would not have come up at all had not Romney raised it himself indirectly in the final question. He said one of the misunderstood things about him is that he is for 100% of Americans. What a stupid thing to say because it let Obama remind Americans of Romney’s 47% remark right at the close of a debate. Romney had a number of missteps like this but Obama’s more agile (and younger) mind kept him virtually gaffe free as well as at the peak of eloquence.

Both candidates were inventing new ways to command an open stage and appear domineering without actually touching each other or moving into each other’s personal space (a mistake Al Gore made in the 2000 debates). Of the two, Obama proved more agile with the assertive body language. He found ways to hunch forward while sitting on his stool as if anxious to lunge forward with a response at the soonest millisecond possible. He even had a way of holding his microphone that looked assertive. Both candidates had all sorts of assertive arm gestures, and fast walking motions that almost looked like prances. Obama is the master of the elevated, superior looking head, but his smile often bordered on smirky. Romney must have studied the last debate videos and had his smirks pointed out to him. In that sense he learned something: smirking is counterproductive and sends the wrong message. Thankfully, I did not have that distraction last night.

It got more entertaining of course when they interrupted one another, or when one candidate pleaded with moderator Candy Crowley for more time, or would not take “shut up” instructions from Ms. Crowley. Mostly though Obama proved a master of framing, often taking “sure to lose” questions like the terrorist assault on our consulate in Libya and turning them into wins instead. When he said he called the incident a terrorist incident the day after it occurred, and he was challenged by Romney, Crowley corrected Romney (she had clearly done her homework), even Romney must have felt the bat to the side of his head.

But what about the debate’s substance? For a debate, it was not bereft of substance but the constant posturing without really addressing the root problems was often maddening on both sides. From Romney, there was more obfuscation on how he could possibly cut taxes and still close the deficit. From Obama, there was no mention at all that increasing taxes on those making more than $250,000 a year (fine by me) won’t begin to seriously cut the deficit. At least Obama was correct to point out that real wealth does not trickle down, but is primarily a consequence of income growth in the middle class. It should not be rocket science that when the majority of people have more money to spend, and actually spend it, that it will cause broad economic growth. Nor should it be rocket science that the rich by themselves cannot save the economy. There is only so much money that rich people can spend to improve their lifestyles, and there simply aren’t enough of them no matter how lavishly they spend their money for it to have real impact on the economic growth of the country.

The debate succeeded in being a contrast in values between Republicans and Democrats. Those still on the political fence at least have these differences to chaw over, assuming they have been politically asleep the last few years. Still, so many real issues were not discussed. There were no questions about the catastrophic consequences of ignoring global warming. There were no questions on the wisdom of the Citizens United ruling, or whether gays should marry, or if we really need to spend $700 billion a year on defense while laying off teachers. Instead it was more about gas prices, “clean” coal, how wonderful the middle class is and the benefits of capitalism, families and apple pie.

The debate made for good theater, but felt much like a glazed donut. It felt great going down. It was not until it was all over that you realized it was only 30 percent substance and 70 percent prancing, and its thrill was quite ephemeral. I enjoyed all the theatrical prancing, but arguably the American people could have used a full diet of substance instead.

The vice presidential debate

The Thinker by Rodin

I don’t know whether to applaud or feel appalled. Maybe it’s okay to do both.

I spent much of this debate with my jaw agape as Vice President Joe Biden did everything to get attention but take off his shoe and bang it on his desk, a la Nikita Khrushchev. Whereas Barack Obama was unfailingly civil and understated in his first presidential debate, Biden went out of his way to be just the opposite with Mitt Romney’s vice presidential choice, Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan. Because of Joe, the debate was more carnival than debate. Biden managed to speak more than Ryan and felt few constraints to let Ryan finish sentences. If Obama could have an evil alter ego, Biden emulated it. The result was that he dominated the debate and dominated the clock as well. He was often rude, frequently dismissive, interruptive and sneering, as well as often wide-eyed when Ryan spoke and chortling, always flashing his impressive set of pearly white teeth.

The contrast made Paul Ryan appear entirely reasonable, unless you tried to parse what he was saying, which rarely made a lot of sense. While Biden dominated the debate, I found Ryan far more telegenic. In particular a feature of his I had never noticed before struck me: his hair, particularly a part of his hairline that uncharacteristically falls down the center of his forehead in a point. It was mesmerizing, even more so that Biden’s antics. His pointy forehead hairstyle is bizarrely uncommon and curiously makes him look like Satan himself.

The Devil in Paul Ryan's hair
The Devil in Paul Ryan’s hair

Biden is known to be flamboyant, but clearly he pulled out all the stops during this debate. It’s unclear who “won” the debate although most polls give Biden a narrow win. No one will deny that Biden was not forceful. His tactics, strangely enough, came right out of the Republican playbook. Those of us following the many Republican debates saw it time and again as candidates tried to break out of the pack. Bizarre, rude and loud behavior usually worked, at least for a while, in getting attention. It did not succeed in producing a nominee with these qualities. In the end Republicans chose Mitt Romney, overall a milquetoast candidate. But that’s the point. Biden is the sideshow and he knows it. He is not being elected president; the choice is between Obama and Romney. His job was to shake up the dynamic moving against the president. His tactics may have made you want to put the kids to bed early, but they probably were rather effective.

Biden actually did something very unusual for a Democrat: he talked backed emotionally more than logically. This approach makes most Democrats uncomfortable. It certainly made me uncomfortable. But generally it works as a strategy. Biden was championing the strategies that made Democrats such as Molly Ivins and Ann Richards so effective, and which I argued in May that Democrats needed to adopt if they want to win elections. Most partisan Democrats were ecstatic with Biden’s performance. Finally here was a man unafraid to say to Republicans exactly why Republicans were so full of shit, and to do so in unambiguously emotional ways.

That’s how you break through the noise and change expectations, and breaking through the noise right now is essential. So in this sense Biden’s performance reflected genius. Take, for example, the so-called Romney-Ryan plan to balance the budget. There is no plan. They won’t articulate one that we can actually study. It’s just more of the same: cutting tax rates, assuming it will lead to huge economic growth, closing unspecified “loopholes”, pumping up the Defense Department’s already bloated budget, cutting the size and scope of the rest of government somehow without impacting Social Security and Medicare for anyone currently over 55, and somehow it will all magically work. It didn’t work in the 1980s under Reagan or in the 2000s under George W. Bush, but this is what they are promoting with almost no details about how it will work. It’s an entirely faith-based economic plan, based on a faith that has repeatedly proven misplaced.

Such an approach to governing should be dismissed; consequently Biden’s behavior certainly was merited based on Romney and Ryan’s faith-based economic plan. Romney recently castigated Obama for substituting hope for a strategy. Yet he is hoping that the magic of supply side economics will substitute for a real strategy and plan to reduce unemployment and grow the economy. No one running for president should be peddling this kind of crap and expect to be taken seriously.

Let’s see a Romney-Ryan detailed economic plan instead of a hope-filled campaign web page. Let economists weigh in on it. They won’t give us one. Until they do, they deserve all the contempt and scorn that Democrats can deliver. Joe Biden did voters a favor by making it clear that they are full of crap. The message was heard loud and clear because his body language told people unambiguously Republicans were full of crap. Message received. Perhaps it will motivate some voters still on the fence to take a look. If so they will realize that if any party is substituting hope for a strategy, it is the Republican Party. And any party that does this deserves the contempt that Biden unleashed on Thursday night.

The first debate

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s not October in a presidential election year without a number of presidential debates. Therein we largely–already-decided-voters get to watch the candidates jostle and parry with each other on national TV. The talking heads go into overdrive. Who won? Who lost? Why? What does it mean? What it mostly means is not a whole lot. Presidential debates rarely change the outcome of the election and these series of debates probably will not either.

On points most analysts give Romney a solid win, and I have to say the analysts are probably right for whatever it is worth. President Obama was in full Mr. Spock mode acting eminently logical and civil and when necessary flashing his proprietary toothy grin. The surprise was that, at least for ninety minutes, Mitt Romney emerged from his green eyeshades mode and resembled something animated and human. Moreover, his arguments sort of made sense, as long as you were ignorant of how he constantly contradicted his positions during the rest of the campaign. This matters little to most of the debate viewers, who could care less about previous statements and campaign minutia, and most of who were tuning into Mitt Romney for the first time.

I watched the debate on cnn.com where the screen was split between Obama and Romney, allowing us to watch the reaction of one candidate while the other blathered. Obama took a lot of hits for seeming disinterested. He was not quite the eloquent debater we saw four years ago when he was debating Hillary Clinton. Obama looked mostly tired and like he wished to be elsewhere. No doubt spending the evening romancing his wife of exactly twenty years was far more appealing than trying to focus on Mitt and his frequently meandering arguments. Obama would have been wise to simply say that Mitt was having many “Etch-a-sketch” moments. Unexplainably, Obama mostly let these many moments pass.

Like his infamous dog Seamus forced to endure much of a family vacation in a pet carrier strapped to the roof of the family sedan, Mitt really looked like he was a dog straining at the leash. He wore a half smirk, half phony smile and the longer it went on the more I was looking for things to throw at my monitor. Toward the end it became nearly unendurable. I shudder to think of him as president. How can we be expected to endure that “I am more superior than you” smirk for at least four years? And yet the press gave him a pass, and concentrated on Obama’s dispassionate and civil performance, which at least is standard behavior from him. Mitt looked the epitome of someone of high school age desperately wanting to be class president, not president of the United States. Gosh, he wanted to be popular! He wanted to sell himself, like a box of detergent.

Moreover, he looked and sounded like a bad imitation of Ronald Reagan. From the slicked back hair to the thick eyebrows, you could almost mistake him for Reagan, except he had none of his gravitas or his sincerity. He also looked Reagan-old. He looked more like the Ta-la-la-la guy than a human being, with a smile that seemed due to a surgical wire under his cheeks and wrinkles around the eyes that looked Botoxed. I found him to be more Martian than human, but at least he was animated. Obama looked like he was on sedatives.

For all the hoopla, there was little of substance exchanged, which was probably by design. Maybe it’s good that Romney’s spouse Ann is into horse dressage. Romney looked like he was competing in a human dressage contest. The debate for Romney was more about pomp and circumstance, gestures and body posture, tone of voice and arm pumping and reused zingers (“you are not entitled to your own facts”) than it was about substance. In that sense, regardless of who won the debate on technical points, the American people lost, since so little policy was actually discussed.

So Obama loses points for being cerebral and disengaged. He is smart enough though not to make the same mistake twice, and will learn how to exploit Romney’s weaknesses in subsequent debates. While Romney “won” the debate, what people are remembering is not so much his quirky animation, but some of his surreal comments. Two nights later what is really making the rounds is not Romney’s animation, but his remarks about firing Big Bird. Fire Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Count von Count, Elmo and all the other Sesame Street characters, not to mention PBS and NPR? This has garnered a huge amount of attention on line, and it’s not good attention. It says more about the real Mitt Romney than any eloquence he managed during the debate. I expect that by the next debate he will be walking those statements back. Actually, I expect before the weekend is over he will have walked the statements back.

I hope the next debate will at least have some substance in it.