Starting in high school and continuing for a total of eighteen years, I was involved in debate competitions, as a participant and then as a coach. In that time, I thought I had seen everything. I have to admit, however, that the reaction to last week’s first Presidential debate—in which the broad majority of commentators declared Mitt Romney the clear winner, even though he (in Jon Stewart’s words) obviously “lied his a** off”—took me by surprise.
After taking a week to reflect on the post-debate commentary, and to try to put the debate in some kind of sensible context, I have concluded that the underlying problem with Romney’s “win” is much deeper than many people have speculated. And the problem is not just that these “debates” are not really debates at all. We have long understood that this was the case, but we also had good reason to believe that there was still something debate-like about these media events.
What is new in this election is the extra step that the Romney/Ryan campaign has taken, in its cynical manipulation of the debate process. They are not just ignoring the rules of debate; they are preying on people’s deep-seated desire to believe the best of others. Romney and his running mate are able to stare people in the face and force them to either say, “I don’t believe you,” or else stay silent out of a misguided but understandable politeness. Many people simply do not want to say or believe such an unpleasant thing as that a person would straight-out lie, a tendency that the most manipulative salespeople in the world have always been able to exploit.
In this column, I will first explain why Romney’s debate performance last week does not fit even the most cynical versions of conventionally manipulative debate tactics. I will then explain how he and Paul Ryan are—not just in their debates, but in their campaign more generally—exploiting the goodwill of the American people to avoid having them believe the ugly truth, which is that the Republican ticket is systematically and outrageously lying to them on a daily basis.
This conclusion, as unappetizing as it is, is required by the facts. It should also bear directly on tonight’s Vice Presidential debate, when Ryan’s ability to open his eyes wide and say that up is down and down is up will be on full display.
The Best Kinds of Debaters: Good at Arguing, and Good at Doing So Persuasively
If one were to try to describe the ideal debater (in the competitive context, or even in the pseudo-debating context of these Presidential events), one would surely want to find a person who masters both substance and style. The most successful debaters that I ever witnessed could not only state a clear argument, but also respond to their opponents’ arguments with logical extensions of their original arguments that negated their opponents’ responses (rather than merely repeating the original point). They were also able to do all this in a way that made people pay attention, framing the argument with word choices and imagery that advanced their viewpoint viscerally, as well as logically.
Last Wednesday evening, neither President Obama nor former Governor Romney even came close to that ideal. On the substantive scale, Obama was merely adequate (responding on point, and extending his own argument, more often than not), whereas Romney was simply pathetic. Not only was Romney saying things that informed viewers knew to be false, but he did not even make an attempt to respond to any of Obama’s arguments. Romney simply repeated the same false statements again and again, a strategy that would have given him the worst possible marks for argumentation in a scored competitive debate.
Over the years in which I observed debate competitions, there were two categories of somewhat successful debaters: those who were very good on the substance while falling short on delivery, and those who could not argue their way out of a paper bag but could summon soaring rhetoric to win on emotional appeal alone.
Obama’s performance fell into neither category, but at least it approximated the former. His delivery was too often weak and uninspiring, but he was a decent arguer. This is evident from the fact that people who read the debate transcript generally thought that Obama had won the debate.
Romney, however, contrary to what many people might imagine, did not fall into the category of “great delivery, no content.” His delivery was, in fact, quiet pedestrian. Post-debate commentary gave him high marks for being “commanding,” but this assessment was mostly a matter of the combination of Romney’s simply being direct, and Obama’s listlessness onstage. Romney’s words did not soar, and his attempts to play on people’s emotions came across as forced and insincere.
What We Saw From Romney at the Debate: An Extreme Version of His Daring People to Call Him a Liar
As I noted earlier, what I saw from Mitt Romney did not fall into any familiar category of bad-but-effective debating. His delivery was not particularly good (although he at least remembered to look directly into the camera, which Obama failed to do), and he certainly had no ability to argue. He was, instead, employing a strategy that quite evidently treats content as entirely manipulable: Tell people whatever they want to hear, and then repeat it over and over again.
Thus, when President Obama argued against Romney’s stated tax “plan” (which is not actually a plan at all, but instead a series of broad goals), Romney did not actually respond to those arguments. Instead, he said that those attacks could not possibly be true, because he (Romney) would never favor doing anything that would have any bad effects on anyone.
If it is bad, he said, he is against it—even if (as is actually the case) it is impossible to do everything that Romney says that he would do, if elected, without some tradeoff that at least some people would think was “bad.” Either the deficit would rise, or tax rates could not go down as far as Romney has promised, or taxes owed by non-wealthy people would have to go up. None of that mattered to Romney, though, because he assured viewers that he had never even proposed a tax plan that could do any bad things.
This is where Romney brought onto the debate stage the level of emotional manipulation that his campaign has been practicing all year. He simply said, looking straight into the camera, that people should believe him at that moment, rather than thinking about anything that he might have said or done in the past. It was “shaking the Etch-a-Sketch“ on a moment-by-moment basis.
Car Salesmen and the Romney/Ryan Strategy: Preying on People’s Desire to Avoid Confrontation
Most adult Americans have experienced high-pressure sales tactics, of one kind or another. Mortgage originators pushed many Americans into mortgages with high fees and unaffordable terms, with tragic results for the borrowers and their neighbors alike (as well as for the national and global economies). Gyms and gym chains, too, have recently become infamous for their high-pressure tactics. Anywhere people can be manipulated, it seems, con men will figure out how to fool people into making hasty, unwise choices.
The most common of these high-pressure venues has, of course, long been the automobile showroom. Car salespeople have been trained for decades in the art of getting people to think unclearly. The basic strategies are to appeal to their customers’ emotions, make them believe that it is essential to move quickly, and not to allow them to consult with advisors such as knowledgeable family members or friends. Of course, there are surely many car salespeople who are honest, and who therefore are also harmed by the tactics of their dishonest colleagues. The sad reality, however, is that millions of people have come out of the car- buying process feeling (correctly) that they were cheated and abused.
One of the techniques that dishonest car salespeople have long deployed is not simply lying to the customer’s face, but also daring the customer to call them on the lie. For example, I once found myself negotiating with a car salesman who told me something about a competing dealer’s prices that I knew to be untrue. When I told him as much, he looked at me with hurt eyes and demanded, “Are you saying I’m lying?!” I felt immediately embarrassed, not wanting to call him a liar to his face. Instead, I avoided the question and simply told him again what I knew about the other dealer’s terms.
Did this stop the car dealer? Of course not. Instead, he said, “I’m sure that’s false. Do you want to call the other dealer now, and tell me what he says? Because I guarantee you that he will back me up.” He put the phone in front of me. Calling his bluff, I called the other dealer, who confirmed my belief. After I hung up, the original dealer then changed the subject and started telling me that this information was irrelevant to my situation. The conversation degenerated from there.
This is exactly the tactic that Romney employed during the debate. He looked at the audience of potential voters, and he simply dared them to say—indeed, he dared them even to think—that he was lying.
This tactic was especially clever, because it put President Obama in an impossible position. Many post-debate criticisms of President Obama have centered on his passivity, noting that he failed, as one pundit put it, “to say three simple words: ‘You’re lying, Governor.’” The smarminess of Romney’s strategy, however, relies precisely on the voter (just like the car buyer) being repelled by such a frank statement by the President.
People do not, after all, want to believe that they are being lied to, and they certainly do not want someone else to call a sincere-looking person a liar, especially to his face. It is just plain rude! The liar/salesman can then look back at the victim and say: “He just called me a liar! Can you really look at me and believe that I’m lying?”
Counting On People to Believe the Best: Romney and Ryan Do It Not Only In Debates, But Also In Their Entire Policy Agenda, Which Actually Counts On Voters Rejecting Their Extreme Policies
Several months ago, there was some surprise among political commentators when focus groups told Democratic consultants that they (the members of the focus groups) suspected that the consultants had mischaracterized the Romney/Ryan policy proposals. The actual content of the policy proposals was so extreme—indeed, so repellent—that the people who were confronted with the details of those proposals for the first time simply could not believe their eyes.
This incredulity on the part of even informed voters explains how the Romney/Ryan campaign has engaged in its most blatantly Orwellian tactics: A campaign that has backed a plan to turn the Medicare system into a voucher plan for everyone who is currently under age 55, nevertheless puts its candidates in front of backdrops featuring slogans like “Protect and Strengthen Medicare.” In fact, the Romney/Ryan approach would end Medicare for the under-55 population, and (as President Obama argued correctly during the debate) it would fatally weaken Medicare for those older Americans who, Romney cynically said, “don’t need to listen any further.”
Given that the fact-checking on Paul Ryan’s speech to the Republican National Convention in August was almost as devastating as the fact-checking was for Mitt Romney’s debate performance last week, we have no reason to expect anything different from Ryan during tonight’s debate. Ryan, in fact, brings two additional weapons to the fight: first, he is able to toss out a lot of numbers, confusing voters into thinking that he knows what he is talking about (when he, in fact, does not); and second, he has mastered the ability to make his eyes look big and sincere, making him especially adept at daring voters to answer in the affirmative when he asks: “Would I lie to you?”
All of this cynical manipulation of the voting population might make supporters of President Obama and Vice President Biden think that all is lost. If the process is this susceptible to outright lies—and, more to the point, is so impervious to calling out Romney and Ryan on their lies—is the only response to be equally cynical, with Obama and Biden sinking to their opponents’ level with bald-faced lies of their own?
Fortunately, there is reason to suspect, however, that it is not necessary for Obama and Biden to throw in the towel and descend to their opponents’ level. After all, while nearly everyone ends up buying a car, almost no one has a good feeling about the salesperson there who assaulted their sensibilities and preyed on their good nature.
Governor Romney’s debate “win” last week might thus have come at a very high cost. He is coming to be seen more and more as someone who is willing to say literally anything to get what he wants, from moment to moment. People are, it is true, often temporarily manipulated by such con men. But people quickly come to look upon them with great distaste. The key question for this election is whether people will have buyer’s remorse before, or after, they vote.