This time we’re not going to tell you who won. It’s a tough call (though instant polls show a slight plurality for Obama). Instead, we’ll give you a few tools. Then you decide.
1. If you didn’t watch it on television, then good. We hope you went to bed early, got a good night’s rest, and dreamed sweet dreams of a better America. Then we hope you got up ridiculously early and watched the debate on the New York Times’s interactive video. It has a scrolling transcript along with the televised debate, along with fact checks as you go. That way you can see who’s exaggerating or just cheerfully lying. (Romney easily scores the most falsity points in this debate, though Obama had a few stretchers as well.)
2. Rate each candidate for phronesis. That’s Aristotle’s “practical wisdom,” the projection of a character who knows his stuff and knows how to apply it reasonably. Both candidates spoke simply and well and used lots of statistics, including highly misleading ones. Unlike last time, Obama managed to avoid saying “Uh” a lot. It made him sound more capable.
3. Score their eunoia. Meaning “disinterested good will.” How much do they seem to care about people? Figaro cringes when politicians try to sound touchy-feely. Last night Obama and Romney were so busy going after each other they seemed to forget the “tender” parts (“tender” is a favorite word of Romney’s). Obama brought up his daughters several times. Romney essentially offered a job to a college student. Neither came across as that terribly, well, tender.
4. Measure their arete. Meaning “virtue,” the candidate’s ability to stand for the values the audience has in common. Virtue tends to bring out participation by the base in each party. That’s because Democratic values differ from Republican ones. Obama talked about his grandfather’s use of the GI Bill and noted pointedly that it “wasn’t a handout.” Romney replied that government doesn’t create jobs. Both are really talking values here—talking directly to their base.
So who won? You decide. Then let us know in the comments below.
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.