The Critical Voter website uses the 2012 presidential campaign to teach critical thinking skills. Jon Haber interviews Figaro on the rhetoric of the Romney-Obama debate and what to watch for in the next ones.
Congressman Ryan fumbled whenever the superb moderator, ABC’s Martha Raddatz, pushed him on specifics. His budget claims ranged from mathematiclaly impossible to hilarious. His point about America’s foreign policy “unraveling” (a great word rhetorically) went largely unsupported, and the foreign policy he espoused for Governor Romney was as vague as Romney himself.
So who won the debate? Ryan.
The spatfest beautifullly illustrated Aristotle’s point that ethos trumps logos. (Do we repeat ourselves? Have you heard us say this before?)
Vice President Biden was his absolute self, which was the problem. He grinned. He mugged. He interrupted constantly. Advisors had clearly coached him to act very, very un-Obama. As a result, he came across as simultaneously arrogant and goofy. Figaro can’t wait to read the transcript of Biden’s performance. He’s guessing the words are pretty great. Biden’s a very smart guy. But the VP’s great logos came out of a big cartoony ethos.
While Biden seemed to forget his chief role—to buck up his boss, the President of the United States, Ryan talked up Romney whenever possible. Ryan came off as crisp, respectable, likeable, and decisive. We’re guessing he won’t come off nearly as well in the transcript.
Figaro’s score: Biden wins on points. But Ryan wins.
Best line of the night goes to Ryan: “Mr. Vice President, I know you’re under a lot of duress to make up for lost ground, but I think people would be better served if we don’t keep interrupting each other.”
Yes, he looked presidential. Yes, Obama looked tired and said “uh” a lot. But Romney’s performance will last beyond the first debate because of some tools Figaro has been talking about for years. Let’s take a look, shall we?
1. He talked like George W. Bush, only articulately.
Really. Like Bush, Romney showed with a lexicon of words to insert randomly—words that would show he has a heart. Words like “heart.” “Tender” (Romney called unemployment a “tender issue”). “Care” without “Obama” in front of it. “Children of God.” “Dreams.”
2. He made Obama seem arrogant.
The President, Romney said, makes the government “substitute itself for the rights of free individuals.” And the one zinger of the night belongs to the challenger: “Mr. President, you’re entitled, as the president, to your own airplane and to your own house, but not to your own facts.” Meanwhile, Obama kept silent about Romney’s arrogant “47 percent” speech.
3. He turned weaknesses into strengths.
The Republicans used to be consistently good at this. The Swift Boat attacks against John Kerry’s military record, for example, made people forget about George W. Bush’s own shaky military background. Last night Romney made Obama sound like a plutocrat, referring to “trickle-down government.” The phrase reverses the Democrats’ line about Republican trickle-down economics, making Romney sound more democratic than the Democrat.
4. He beat Obama on ethos.
This is the most most important win. Voters choose the candidate they like and trust. That’s ethos—the character people see in a candidate. Ethos is based on three perceived traits. Aristotle called them practical wisdom, disinterest, and virtue. We call them Craft, Caring and Cause. Romney came in prepared and knowledgeable (Craft). He used “heart” and threw in a baby anecdote and talked about suffering (Caring). And he came with a Cause: “…we look for discovery and innovation, all these thing desired out of the American heart to provide the pursuit of happiness for our citizens.”
No, that last sentence didn’t make logical sense. But Aristotle—who invented logic as we know it—noted that ethos trumps logic in rhetoric.
Will Romney’s clear win make enough of a difference? Though debates almost never do, this one just might. The conservative super PACs might get back into the game; they’d been shifting their advertising away from Romney toward congressional elections. And while the few undecided voters probably didn’t watch the debate, they’ll be influenced by the followup media.
So the race is back where we started: too close to call.
The New York Times has a great word cloud comparing the terms used at the Republican and Democratic conventions. Check it out here.
Figaro has been looking at the use of tropes and figures by each political party. We find that Dems favor poetic patterns—figures—while Republicans prefer tropes: ways of bending reality. In the Times infographic you may find another difference. Which party seems to use the more specific, easily defined words? And which one uses more symbolic terms?
Why should you care? Because symbols lend themselves to demonstrative rhetoric—language that brings a tribe together and makes it feel superior to another tribe. Specific terms apply better to deliberative rhetoric: argument about choices. So which side seems more about tribes, and which one focuses more on choices?
Yeah, we know, both parties get pretty tribal. But isn’t it interesting to see political language in that light? It would make a good drinking game for the prez debates. For each specific term or fact, drink a precise amount of beverage. For each trope, pretend to drink. Which candidate gets you high?
Good Figarists around the world are getting out their chili recipes, unpacking their foam No. 1 signs, and buying team regalia. It’s Presidential Debate time! The first one’s October 3. Bring your vuvuzela!
Wait. Only Figaro brings his vuvuzela to debate parties?
In a tight election, everything makes a difference. In this election, though, the difference the debate will make will be, um, different.
Each candidate will use code language to signal the fringes without turning off moderates. Consultants call this technique dog whistling, because it sends messages in a rhetorical frequency only insiders can understand. Obama will talk about fairness, community, level playing fields, and following the rules. Romney is practicing his scriptural phrases, military jargon, and coded messages about Israel.
Meanwhile, the campaign’s spinners are trying to lower expectations for their own candidates and flattering their opponents. If Romney does very well, looking decisive and presidential while attacking Obama in jovial, Reaganesque fashion, he can outscore the president. And that will gin up enthusiasm among Republicans.
Which is the end game for Romney. He rouses his party or he loses. Be there for the kickoff!