Political Debate or Conversation?

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?


About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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17 Responses to Political Debate or Conversation?

  1. Barneysday says:

    Most excellent post. Wouldn’t it be great that’ve a conversation with these guys? To have the chance to ask questions and importantly, follow-up questions? To plumb the depths of Obama to find if there is a level of pragmatism allowing an offset for his ideals. By the same means, in talking with Romney, to find if there is anything substantial there.

    I fear that the pr pieces and the sound bites have buried any remaining substance the candidates might have so deeply that we’d never be able to find it.

    • hermitsdoor says:

      I’ve even become annoyed with NPR’s hype about all aspects of the preparation, predictions… Sounds like NFL Sunday morning 2 hours before the first game starts. Maybe there is nothing more of substance to report about the election, so we get Survivor and American Idol drivel. Well, we shall see how this works out (see Momma Suzzana’s comment). Thanks for being on top of the politics.

      • Barneysday says:

        Got to admit, I’m not an NPR fan. They set up an interview with me several years ago over a piece I wrote for national publication, they then blind sided me with an attack by the host and a guest that was completely off the topic they asked me to prepare for.

        Having said that, I completely agree with your American Idol/Survivor argument. Romney prepared a bunch of zingers ahead of time? Really, who cares!

        Personally I think there is a lot of substance they could report, and that I’d be interested in, but the news departments choose not to share it.

      • hermitsdoor says:

        I lamented when NPR ousted Bob Edwards (and later put him on Sunday a.m.) to place some younger, smily, giggly commentators. I have heard some pretty testy interviews. Do you think I heard you?! Today’s follow up commentaries, other than 10 minutes of fact-checking, were worthless.

      • Barneysday says:

        This happened about 8 years ago, in January, either 2003 or 2004. I had written a national editorial that played in almost every major paper in the country, and NPR called for an interview. When I got on later the next evening, it was a blind sided attack by a book author of a book over 12 years old, and the host.

        I have never listened to NPR since.

      • hermitsdoor says:

        Whatever short sighted objectives they had resulted in a long term loss. I wonder whether they even recall the event (or how many others did they viscerate?). NPR looks good compared to the alternatives during a drive to work (Huckabee Report, anyone?). Keep up the independent voice.

  2. Mother Suzanna says:

    You might get your wish for a conversation! The Commission for Presidential Debates (a site worth going to) has recommended that the candidates sit at a table. We shall see tonight! Having read Jim Lehrer’s book “Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates”, I’m excited to see what the NEW format for the debates will bring to the table. Jim Lehrer, who has moderated 11 of the 35 Presidential Debates, was involved in coming up with the new format and it was his, “It’s just wonderful” comment that got me interested in the Debates. So tonight the hour and a half will be divided up into 6, 15 minut4e segments. Each segment will have a topic: 1) Economy, 2) Economy, 3) Economy, 4) Health Care, 5) Role of Government and 6) Governing. Each segment will be opened with a question by Jim Lehrer. Each candidate will have 2 minuets to make a statement and then the rest of the time will be an open conversation between them. YOU MIGHT GET YOUR WISH…let’s hope they are seated at a table. “P.S.”: to my surprise, I found out by reading Lehrer’s book that the moderator makes up the questions and NO ONE knows what they will be until he asks them. Always fun to read your blogs, Hermit.

    • hermitsdoor says:

      Do give me a report on the visual of the debate. We shall be listening on the radio. Wow, maybe I’m ahead of the curve! Thanks for all the details.

    • Barneysday says:

      I would love a conversation, and I think many voters would too, where the guest could not get up and leave, where I could ask the question, and the follow up, and the follow up until such time as we got some truth out of them.

  3. Wisewoman says:

    I can’t believe I read all this! Having just come from looking/listening to TV and the great American Debate I can’t imagine using a table for the “conversation” if there was a woman running for office. The “show” would be very interesting with the crossing and uncrossing of knees, ankles, and legs. The only candidate that would get away with it is Hillary. She wouldn’t even have to wear 3 inch heels. You can see that my vote won’t count much. Only 37 days to go????

    • hermitsdoor says:

      I was disappointed in (listening to) the debate. Neither candidate answered the questions, stayed on time, or respected the other. The “conversation” sound more like who can talk faster and longer, cut of the other speakers, and disregard the modirator. In my opinion, no one “won” this debate. I just heard unclarified accusations and facts, stump speach rhetoric, and “You’re a lier” sentiment. I think I’ll go on vacation.

  4. If you could converse with Obama or Romney, what would you like to talk about?

    I’ll pass if you don’t mind. To be honest… the only people I DON’T want to ever be President are the ones willing to do anything to become President. Obama lied to me and the rest of the American public when he stated he would do so many things he didn’t… and not do so many others that he did… and Romney is just a profoundly dissociated religious loon. I would rather go to the dentist than spend time, alone, with either one of them.

    At my age I find it impossible to be “fake polite”. I can no longer muster up the energy to “fake” an interest in a person consumed with the acquisition of power, or, money. They simply bore the crap out of me.

    • hermitsdoor says:

      From reading your comments on Barney’s blog, your lack of interest in engaging with the candidates makes sense. As you know, politics is all about “faking” in order to get elected. As Barney has been demonstrating in his posts, Romney has faked his way through the primaries in order to get the neo-conservatives, et al. to select him. The “Etch-A-Sketch” meraphor is now is play. And, many Obama supporters in 2008 view the campaign commitments forgotten fodder. I had a conversation during the election with someone who thought that Obama, assuming that his pledges were genuine, would be co-oped by the Democratic machine. I’m sure that you have a perspective on that!

      On a more amusing side, my brother called after I published this post, claiming to be Mitt Romney wanting to have a conversation with me. We had a laugh. Then, Romney actually flew into the local airport in the Shenandoah Valley and had a rally about 30 miles from where I work. I had a fleating image of arriving home to find him waiting in my driveway. Got to be careful what you put out there. 🙂

      Thanks for dropping by.

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