Handicapping the American Election: First U.S. Presidential Debate

Except that I was visiting my folks, I would not have even bothered to watch the dang thing. Outside of that one vice-presidential debate (Bentsen v. Quayle – 1988) which delivered one of the best political put downs in a losing cause; (“Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”); U.S. debates are generally not memorable or politically significant. It has been generations since U.S. political culture produced those who could deliver an [apparent] off-the-cuff rhetorical zinger or flourish.

I am not particular partisan in this election. Though having conservative sentiments, they are of a moderate kind, akin to David Brooks; seeking a conservative solution to what are deemed leftist issues, such as income and wealth disparity, for which I have been deeply concerned since the early 90s. One couldn’t even find socialist voice on the issue in that day. Contemporary conservatism has so veered to pre-Disraeli (or pre-Teddy Roosevelt) extremes, that that most-liberal of U.S. Senators, Obama, starts to look attractive.

I left two thirds of the way through; with the impression that Romney was clearly winning; knowing, however, that personal bias might have planked perspective. He came off, in convincing fashion, as more moderate than prior held general impression; putting lie to the portrait that his campaign had allowed itself to be defined by. The responses to the talking points and straw men arguments from Obama were subtly countered (attacking components of the Dodds-Frank bill, rather than the bill itself). He painted a First Administration that has lacked creative measures, which could reinvigorate the economy. Obama came across with an astonishingly world-weary lackluster and was devoid of suppleness of mind.

I write now, upon reflection and after going through American punditry, particularly of the left-leaning kind (Washington Post, Time, CNN) and find a remarkable immediate consensus on the verdict. This is highly abnormal. Usually, the partisan spin that inundates the media organizations generally reign over fair analysis in the immediate aftermath of such events. The polls tend to follow partisan bias; sometimes deliberate, but often as consequence of a shared political language with the champions of their cause. They cannot comprehend the vernacular of the other.

How abnormal is consensus on these events? In the 1984 Canadian election (Mulroney v Turner), in which Mulroney stung Turner about confirming last day political appointments by Trudeau; it was not evident until days and perhaps weeks after that the zinger moment (a rhetorically pathetic one about a trifling issue) had any lasting effect. The Bentsen moment had immediate cache. However, it was a vice-presidential debate and actually caused me to want the dignified Senator to be the Democratic President candidate, instead of whomever.

The fact is, as political gladiatorial sports go, Romney literally owned the incumbent President. I don’t think I have seen such lop-sidedness in these generally carefully-scripted politically choreographed ballets. And I am somewhat surprised, as ought to be the near 60% that predicted that Obama would win (compared to about 25% for Romney). As even conservative pundits (i.e. Peggy Noonan) intimated, Romney appeared to be a political bumpkin to which even James Buchanan or Herbert Hoover could have won re-election.

A rash of conflicting and confusing statistics usually leads to a lethargic draw. However, in demonstrating clear, concise and comprehensible arguments like the $90 Billions wasted on green energy projects (Obama) drown out corporate welfare on energy subsidies of $2B annually, Romney lands a count. The unintended effects of the Dodds-Frank bill were also succinctly presented. The counter to the Obama claim about deductions for relocation was a good-humored, folksy zinger. “The second topic, which is you said you get a deduction for taking a plant overseas. Look, I’ve been in business for 25 years. I have no idea what you’re talking about. I maybe need to get a new accountant.

Obama’s argument about the likely long-term effects of side-by-side government versus voucher system health care paradigms has merit. It is a harder argument to make, even though valid. However, contrary Obama’s reputed communication skills; he was not particularly adept at proving the point. It was muddled.

As a statesmen, I have thought Obama is as vacuous as Bush; another emperor with no clothes. However, considering his success in the 2008 campaign, I had hitherto thought much more highly of his political and partisan acumen. My own impression is that the narcissistic and arrogant President underestimated his opponent, believing the rhetoric of his own campaign, and was highly unprepared.

A quip that Obama made, likely a mere misstatement, which could be well exploited as a Republican political sound bite was the following (35 minutes into the debate).

And the magnitude of the tax cuts that you’re talking about, Governor, would end up resulting in severe hardship for people, but more importantly, would not help us grow.

Did Obama say that? Did he actually suggest that severely hurting people are less important than the more esoteric goal of economic growth, whose purpose is to help these hurting people? This uncovers a subterranean attitude of many a statist thinker, who concern themselves with systems. People are of less consequence.

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Is this debate a game changer? In a politically fluid electorate, it should be. The current economic and geopolitical prospects for the American nation should also make the non-incumbent a shoe-in. However, the ideologically static polarization in the current American sociopolitical landscape might not move the yard sticks all that much.

I don’t think it matters who wins. The American economy, although hanging on, is on the ropes; held together by a false economy produced by private debt inducing and addicting loose Fed monetary policy and surreal trillion dollar deficits as far as the eye can see. There is no allowance for cushion should another extraneous shock occur. The state of the economy and the world economy is in peril. The ability to return to normal growth has to contend with the cross currents of a normalization of interest rates and fiscal budgets; let alone some of the overarching structural impediments (concentration of income, wealth and means of production).

Secondly, the nation is in a perilous sociopolitical polarization that Monroe (Federalist Paper #10) and Washington (Farewell Address) forewarned as being detrimental to all civil polities. One of the consequences, most apparent at the present time, is political deadlock. Brinkmanship is becoming regular practice. One of these times, the brinkmanship might produce an economic or sociopolitical earthquake on its own.

The Left is bereft of novel ideas; largely fighting this war with the weapons of prior battles; and deploying them unwisely. The Right is barely doing better. Lowering taxes as an incentive policy is a mere tinkering compared to the enormous socioeconomic problems that advanced capitalism or aging and decadent societies pose. To those, I will attend at another time.

 

 

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