The first Presidential debate is coming up on Wednesday, Mitt Romney v. Barack Obama, going head to head, mano a mano, for Leader of the Free World. And . . . I’m in tech week for a show. This is pretty much always what happens; in ’08, Obama v. McCain, we were in tech election night. I’d be all ‘I need a little more light upstage right,’ and my phone would buzz, I’d check the text, and then I’d say “oh, and also, Obama just took Virginia.” And there’d be this small cheer and much louder sigh. This is Utah, after all, and although in my experience techies negotiate that ‘theatre person’ v. ‘blue collar worker’ dichotomy with nimble dexterity, we were probably 70-30 red over blue that night. Didn’t hurt the show, so I was cool.
Anyway, this year, apparently, the United States is about to descend to a hellish dystopia, where armed citizens shoot looters over loaves of Wonder Bread, and starving children cry themselves to deeply troubled sleep. Either way. If the wrong guy wins. Our choices would seem to be between a socialist Moslem who has just been biding his time before turning the country over to terrorists, or a heartless plutocrat who crushes the poor beneath the wheels of the many automobiles he stores in his multi-level garage.
I’m voting for the Moslem.
As I have said repeatedly, in fact, all this hand-wringing hyperbole is silly nonsense. The election is between two honorable and decent men who disagree about policy. I’m voting for the guy who has the better economic plan, in my opinion. This is not about The End of the World as We Know It. Whoever wins, I feel fine.
But that’s not why I’m so looking forward to the debates. The debates themselves are hilarious enough. They’re not going to actually be debates. No actual ideas will be exchanged, no new information dispensed. Nothing that happens will have anything to do with policy. It’s theatre, really. It’s about body language, it’s about how both guys seem. How they come across, how they present themselves. We’re not voting, we’re auditioning. Does Romney seem like he ‘cares’ about ‘people like me.’ Does Obama seem ‘distant’ or ‘intellectual.’ Elections get won or lost based on acting choices: George H. W. Bush checking his watch, Clinton walking over to an audience member looking sympathetic, Al Gore sighing. In 2000, I thought Gore had clobbered Bush in their first debate. I thought it was a mismatch on the level of Nixon/McGovern, or Reagan/Mondale. I thought Al Gore had just obliterated Bush so badly, he might win 40 states. Then I saw the polls. His sighing made him seem unlikable. Command of the issues mattered less than the Gore reaction shots.
And that’s fair, I suppose. Body language matters. Non-verbal clues are key to emotional intelligence. People vote from the gut.
Both guys have been engaging in ‘debate prep.’ They’re memorizing zinger answers to what they assume their opponents will say, based on carefully researching each other’s stump speeches, which will be carefully mined for good soundbites. The moderator will ask questions of the candidates, to be sure, but no one expects anyone to actually engage with the issues suggested by the questions, or, you know, answer the questions at all. It’s all about the pivot, the swerve, the way you segue from a question to one of your pre-memorized answers. But you have to be smooth about it. You have to make your answer sound like a plausible response to the question being asked.
But far and away the best part, for me, is the spin. It’s already started, of course. The preferred narrative is that of Hoosiers. The overwhelming underdog overcoming all odds to triumph. The Daily Show had a lot of fun with expectations spin last night. President Obama is a poor debater, says his campaign staffer. He was never particularly good at it. And Governor Romney is a seasoned, terrific debater. If we can just hold our own, that’ll be a win for us. The idea is, both candidates are Hickory High, and the team they’re playing is the Lakers.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was terrific at this on last Sunday’s Snuffleupagus. Governor Christie looks really forthright, for one thing. And he said two things unexpected: that he didn’t think pollsters are dishonest (a favorite Fox News meme of the week), and that he didn’t think the GOP should back Todd Akin in Missouri. Those two comments gave him terrific credibility. He then said, with that same stalwart look of complete integrity, that President Obama will lie about Romney’s economic plans in the debate, and that those plans were completely above-board and workable.
It was grade A spin, perfectly conceived and executed. He says unflattering things about a fellow Republican. (Wow! This guy, we can trust!). He then says something preposterous; that the Romney tax cuts can be entirely funded through closing loopholes for upper-class tax payers. In fact, it can’t be done–the only ‘loopholes’ that would generate sufficient revenue to pay for Romney’s tax cuts would have to include eliminating the home mortgage tax deduction, which middle class voters LOVE. But facts don’t matter much in Presidential politics. Acting is what matters. And Christie comes across so well, it’s easy to believe him.
David Plouffe, spinning for Obama, didn’t do nearly as well. And you watch, after the debate on Wednesday, the Republicans will pull Christie out as a main spinner. Heck, I would. He’s incredibly good at it.
This does not mean, by the way, that I think Chris Christie is a liar. Spinning isn’t really the same thing as lying, I don’t think, though it’s a very close first cousin to it. We all spin. From an early age, we spin. “Yes, Mom, I sort of broke the vase. But what happened was. . . .” As a Mormon, I have to go in every two years and get interviewed for my temple recommend. One question is ‘have you been completely honest in your dealings with your fellow man?’ Well, I think I’m a reasonably straightforward chap. But ‘completely honest?’ So . . . I spin. I say “gosh, I sure try to be.’ I try to say it as disarmingly as possible. I try to put the best face on it I can. I don’t lie. But I do spin.
(I even tried to spin that last sentence. Re-wrote it five times, trying to make it sound as positive as I could make it sound.)
The key to spin is the creation of an ‘official narrative.’ Right now, in regards to the debate, President Obama’s official narrative is “he’s not a very strong debater. And he’s rusty. Hasn’t been in a debate for years. He’s likely to stumble. He may come across as obnoxiously professorial. He may give long,complicated answers to questions he should answer with soundbites. We’re very concerned.” Check out some of the buried assumptions there. He’s ‘professorial’ (too intelligent for his own good). He’s ‘rusty’ (because he’s been running the Free World). So when Obama debates really effectively (and he will), he’ll have ‘exceeded expections.’ And if he does REALLY well, heck, then he’s Jimmy Chitwood, hitting the last second shot.
Same thing goes for Romney, obviously. There’s an official narrative there too: ‘he’s actually been talking in very specific terms about his plans for the economy, but the media won’t let the message through. So he’s looking forward to this opportunity to talk to the American people directly. The President’s a terrific debater; we just want to hold our own.’
The thing is, though. The largest bloc of voters that haven’t really weighed in yet is the bloc of young voters, first-time and second-time voters, people under thirty. They’re undercounted in polls, because pollsters focus on likely voters and young people tend not to. My youngest daughter has been saying for weeks she’s not going to vote; what’s the point, she says. They’re all liars. It won’t make any difference. Then Romney said the 47% thing and she went out and registered.
Because young people have been lied to for years. They’ve been lied to by professionals, by the most polished, cleverest, funniest, smartest liars on the planet. They reject political ads, in part because they’re so offensively dishonest, but also because they’re badly done. Young people have become connoisseurs of lies. They expect a lie told with some wit and charm. They expect to be amused by lies. They’re perfectly aware that drinking the right beer won’t make you attractive to the opposite sex, but if that lie is told enjoyably enough, and you also get to see attractive members of the opposite sex in the ad, well, your time won’t necessarily have been wasted.
I was about to say that spin is lost on young voters. Then I spent a half-hour on Redditt. So I guess what matters is format.