Pretty much every pundit – and every one with at least a brain stem – acknowledges that Romney won this debate decisively. But what most of them are missing is why it was such a blowout.
It’s the format, stupid – the best political debate format I’ve ever seen. And contrary to a lot of the professional pundits – most of whom dream to some day be in the spotlight (on par with or above the candidates themselves) by being debate moderators themselves – Jim Lehrer did exactly the right thing by NOT participating any more than with a gentle reminder here and there on time and the broad topic to be addressed.
I was on the debate team in high school. We had time keepers and judges, but we didn’t have moderators. We didn’t need them. We would have been annoyed and insulted if they’d been there. If we said something that wasn’t true, the other side could refute it. If they didn’t, well, it was a scored exercise with winners and losers, and if you didn’t have a pre-existing command of the facts and the issues necessary to catch the error and beat the other side over the head with it, you were the loser. As our coach always told us, debate rounds are won in the library.
What we did have was a full 16 minutes – two uninterrupted 8 minute speeches – to make our cases or to refute the other team’s case. After each 8 minute speech, the other team was allowed to cross examine the speaker for a full three minutes (for a total of six minutes). When all of that was done, each team (two members each) was allowed 10 more minutes for rebuttal – again, in two uninterrupted blocs of 5 minutes each.
And that was on one specific policy proposal that the debaters themselves were largely free to pick, within the broad boundaries of the year’s topic, of course.
There is far more substance in almost any high school varsity policy debate round than in any political debate I’ve ever seen. Anyone can spew platitudes for 90 seconds before a bell rings, but almost no one can keep it up for 8 minutes and still look credible, especially when subject to being directly challenged by their opponent. You have to know what you’re talking about, or you will lose. You have to know what your opponent ISN’T saying, so you can note it and then call them out on it. If you can’t do that, it’s a clear indication that either the facts aren’t on your side and you know it, or that you don’t know any facts at all.
Everyone on my high school debate team knew that before their 17th birthdays. Obama clearly has never learned that lesson. And since liberals everywhere are blaming the moderator for not being more active and aggressive (all against Romney, of course), it’s doubtful he will learn it after tonight, either.
The only thing an active moderator can do to change this is to cover for the debater who can’t defend him or herself. How is that a service to the American people, who must gauge not just competing plans, but relative competence? Shouldn’t we expect more of our Presidential candidates than we do from high schoolers?
I’ve written before about competency as it relates to philosophy. I think Obama is a spectacularly bad president not just because of his philosophy or ideas, but because he is astonishingly incompetent. I think this debate laid that fact bare in a way that a more “standard” debate format would not have. Part of competence is preparation, and it’s clear Obama simply didn’t prepare. And honestly – shouldn’t he know the ins and outs of these numbers and policy specifics pretty cold by now, three day Vegas retreat or no? You’d better believe it’s a fair question that if he can’t be bothered to do his homework for a political debate, what else can’t he be bothered to study up on?
Moreover, he was clearly upset that the moderator wasn’t bailing him out. Obama may be a smart guy, but he’s lazy (he’s described himself that way) and it shows. And he’s frankly not failed enough in his life to be motivated to be otherwise (and when he has failed, he’s had enough sycophants surrounding him who convince him otherwise). That’s a huge part of the reason he’s so inept as President. He’s never HAD to do the work before, because he could always count on a friendly lefty media type to “fact check” his opponent for him. That’s shameful for any candidate, but how scary is it that the guy with the nuclear codes just doesn’t know what the hell is going on around him? I mean, I get that it’s more fun to hang out with Jay-Z than to go to intelligence briefings while your country is being actively attacked by al Qaeda, but wow.
Life doesn’t have moderators – certainly no disinterested ones, anyway. There is no moderator to bail him out when he’s negotiating with economically or militarily hostile foreign governments. There is no moderator to declare a “winner” when a President is dealing with Congressional leadership.
A leader must take control of any debate, persuading the opposing sides themselves (or at least a solid majority of decision makers) that they have more to gain and less to fear by accepting his position than by going the opposite way. One does this through logic, facts, and credibility earned through past successes. When you don’t have any of those things, you can sometimes bluff your way through, but not for long. And incompetent blowhards like that very quickly retreat into themselves and fall into line when a truly competent person enters the room and starts doing their thing.
That’s exactly what happened in tonight’s debate. The format put the two candidates – NOT the moderator – in the spotlight. It put them burden on them – NOT the moderator – to challenge and respond and lead the discussion. I don’t want a President of the United States who meekly does what he’s told by a TV host, for crying out loud.
The contrast could not have been more clear tonight thanks to a format that demanded Presidential candidates be expected to drive a discussion on their own, and forced them beyond bumper sticker slogans and talking points. Jim Lehrer should be applauded for giving the candidates the chance to show not just what they think, but their ability to command.
Romney won big because of this format, but so did the American people.