With the Republican and Democratic conventions wrapped up and the presidential campaigns ramped up, President Obama seeks another term and Mitt Romney seeks to replace the administration. Currently, they are conducting rallies and giving stump speeches. Soon scheduled debates will occur. For all the hostility and negativity in this political season, neither candidate seems to have such competitive personality traits. This is the first presidential election in which both candidates seem like nice guys. At both conventions, various speakers pointed out that the other party’s candidate is a nice guy. Will the debates really be a forum in which we get to observe how these candidates will respond?
I think that both Romney and Obama would rather have a conversation than a debate. Romney would probably come off as the pragmatist, drawing upon his experiences in his family, church, and business to address the challenges of the executive branch of the federal government. Obama would probably come off as the intellectual, applying theories of social and group behavior to motivate people to participate in social progress. In addition to appearing to be nice guys, they are the only presidential candidates whom I could actually envision sitting down with for a meal and a chat.
During my voting days, Jimmy Carter is the closest I see fitting this image of sitting down and talking with. Reagan, when I was in my 20’s, came off as dismissive, “Boy, you’ll understand some day.” Bush, Sr. was too blue-blood, so I could not imagine getting past the security system at the compound in Kennibunkport. Clinton was too much into wheeling-and-dealing for me. I was probably settling in for a good night’s sleep, just when he was getting going for the evening. W., well, I do not watch football or NASCAR with a beer in hand, anyway.
But, Romney’s millions do not seem as much of a barrier. I could see dropping by with a covered dish with some home-grown tomatoes and goat cheese, and being welcomed in. I could see carrying on a lively discussion with Obama over a fresh cup of coffee on the Truman Balcony. I suspect that if I could engage the candidates in such conversations, I would see a different side of each of their positions and personalities. Strip away the handlers, spin doctors, and party rhetoric to find the nice guys.
But, our election process is about winning, competition, debates, not conversations. Elections and debates are zero-sum games. One person (party) wins, and the other loses. Debates are structured for conflict. Each “opponent” stands behind the limited security of his podium, while a moderator presents a topic. Within the time allotted, each candidate is expected to “defend” his position, and “attack” the other’s candidate’s platform. Like a boxing match, the audience expects a “knock out” or at least rates each round to determine the winner. Like a boxing match, “punches below the belt” are not allowed, but if you can get away with a few, your side will cheer you on. Debates are not necessarily about candidates speaking authentically, but about practicing articulating key idea, evading weak positions, and derailing the opponent with unexpected moves, like Kennedy reaching out shake Nixon’s hand or Sarah Palin asking Joe Biden “Can I call you Joe?”.
If this were a conversation, such a question would be a form of friendliness, rather than Palin’s attempt to strip Biden of his experience and expertise, just an average-Joe. A conversation should be relaxed, seated, comfortable, personable, and casual. Certainly, strongly held beliefs, complicated ideas, and areas of disagreement could be brought into a conversation. But, the atmosphere and objective would be different. A conversation allows for attempting to understand the other person. Where differences in style and opinion exist, a conversation allows each speaker to present those positions. A conversation does not expect that both speakers will draw the same conclusions, only that they will have the opportunity to present their ideas. Conversations are not scripted and practiced. I would prefer to see Obama and Romney sitting in a couple of over-stuffed chairs, with some snacks and beverages of their choice on a coffee table.
After the conventions, the news was about Romney and Obama campaigning in the same states (I believe Ohio and Vermont). The images that I happened to catch on the TV news were jumping from the Republican stage to the Democratic stage. The sound-bites were of each candidate attacking the other’s positions. I pondered what those events might have been like, if the candidates traveled in the same bus and shared the same stage at the same time. It is easy to attack someone who is not present. It is easy to get isolated in your own thinking when you spout rhetoric and are surrounded by like-minded people. But, this just generates more division in our civic life.
The concept of debates divide us. There is no need for listening, understanding, or compromise. Give the one-two punch and knock out your opponent. If politics is a zero-sum game, I suspect that the winners will be the politicians, regardless of party affiliation, and the looser will be the citizens. I would rather put out some home-grown tomatoes, goat cheese, and a few beverages, while we sit and converse.
The flaw in my idea(l) is that conversations anticipate that both parties want to talk and are willing to listen. Campaign “war rooms”, providing sound-bites for the hourly or evening news, internet forwarded messages, negative campaigning and SuperPAC’s all suggest that there are a lot of people who are neither interested in talking nor listening. Their agenda is propaganda. While the stated goal is to persuade the independent or undecided voters to their candidate, I suspect that the effect is more to energize the dedicated voters and alienate the rest. A conversation between the candidates and among citizens probably would have the opposite effect. The stalwart voters who probably consider the candidate as weak and undedicated, but the independent voters might believe they have seen a more authentic view of the person. It is easy to vote against someone whom you can vilify. Maybe if we had more conversations, it would be easier to vote for someone.
A book, The Founding Gardeners, which we came across earlier in the year, chronicled the effect of gardens on the colonial era. If you think that our political cycles is vile, they pale when compared to a time when citizens actually did tar and feather officials whom they did not like, or cut off ears and fingers of opponents. But, during the hot summer during which the Continental Congress wrangled over the drafts of the Declaration of Independence, when impasses developed, the congress took a recess. Rather than retreating to separate chambers or caucuses, the members took walks together in local gardens. They talked. They worked out their difference for the larger cause. We need more conversations and fewer debates.
If you could converse with Obama or Romney, what would you like to talk about?