Substance, sizzle and television

What is the goal of the televised political presidential “debate”?

I put the word in quotations for a reason. This made-for-TV event, wrenched away from the League of Women Voters (a non-partisan organization devoted to civic education) and handed over to an organization run by the Democratic and Republican parties, bears little resemblance to formal debates, which center around a specific question. No moderator required.

Reading the post-debate critiques, I can’t help but frame U.S. presidential debate theatre as a modern day gladiator ring, where combatants exchange verbal barbs instead of physical blows. There is no fight to the death. Neither are there referees or objective “rules” for ascertaining a winner. There is, however, plenty of fodder for political pundits and satirists.

In this frame, a candidate who refrains from verbal body punches …. loses.

Although I missed the exchange due to a work conflict, I read the transcript. In so doing, I was struck by what seemed to me to be a disconnect between what I’d read about the performance and the substance of the rhetoric. And who provided specifics. Evidence.

It brought me to this question: what is the goal? Is it to get the base fired up? Is it to appeal to the non-aligned (ie, “independent”) voter? Is it to persuade the small percentage of Americans who say they’ve not made up their minds as to who to vote for? Is it to merely appear friendly, approachable, authentic? Is it to get great headlines afterwards?

Depending upon which question you choose, you can make a different case for which man “won” on Wednesday. Yeah, I know all the pundits have decided Mitt “won” — but I still don’t know what criterion they are using to make that judgment, unless it is the “who landed the most blows” tally.

***

Let’s take just one example. Romney claims he is going to cut spending to match his tax cuts. Then he cites one program as an example. PBS.

Yep, Mitt gives one example of federal spending run wild: a $444 million program. That’s not even a rounding error in a trillion dollar budget.

In his own, non-specific words:

What things would I cut from spending? Well, first of all, I will eliminate all programs by this test — if they don’t pass it: Is the program so critical it’s worth borrowing money from China to pay for it? And if not, I’ll get rid of it. “Obamacare” is on my list. I apologize, Mr. President. I use that term with all respect.

…I’m sorry, Jim. I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you too. But I’m not going to — I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it. That’s number one.

Number two, I’ll take programs that are currently good programs but I think could be run more efficiently at the state level and send them to state.

Number three, I’ll make government more efficient, and to cut back the number of employees, combine some agencies and departments. My cutbacks will be done through attrition, by the way.

As the Congressional Budget Office pointed out this summer, because the health care reform bill (“Obamacare”) contains some cost containment features (not enough, but that’s another post), simply repealing this bill (per H.R. 6079 – Rep Paul Ryan is a co-sponsor) would actually increase federal expenditures. Not save money. Cost money.

Apparently the political chattering class finds claims like these legitimate. I don’t.

Moving on, Mitt will reduce the number of federal government employees through attrition. Umm. First, how many federal government employees are there?

Total: 3.6 million federal employees (combined estimate – most statistics do not include military in this figure). Federal employment — military plus civilian — reached an all time high in 1987 during the Reagan-Bush years.

In 2011, the U.S. labor force was 153,617,000.

I’ll give you Mitt’s statement as dog whistle rhetoric (make government smaller) but the fact is the federal government employment is not major chunk of the workforce. And given Mitt wants to increase military spending …

For context: also in 2011, there were 3.8 million state government employees and 10.8 million local government employees – this includes police, judges, teachers.

***

Both Romney and Obama are guilty of oversimplification and exaggeration. However, there’s no way to read the fine print on Mitt’s claims because he refuses to provide any. On Sunday, for example, Ryan ducked a question about the tax plan fine print by claiming “I]t would take me too long [to explain].”

Fine. Put it on a web site. Let us read it.

No wonder almost every American is put off by politics. And Congress.

Gallup - Congressional Approval Rating

I thought it would be interesting to analyze the two men’s words visually. So here are two Wordles for your enjoyment.


wordle - Romeny - 1st debate


Wordle Obama First Debate

Unfortunately, they don’t help answer the opening question.

***

It turns out that the debates themselves have little influence on voter preferences, according to a slew of political science research. But what does have influence … is how the media report the results. And being an “attractive candidate.” Sizzle, in other words.

As though physical appearance had anything to do with any kind of intelligence. Ah, what superficial animals we truly are.

Uninformed, too. [1, 2, 3, 4, 5-pdf, 6-pdf]

Do the televised “debates” help foster civic understanding? Not if the candidates can dissemble or flat out lie with impunity.

In this frame, a candidate who has failed to study how to succeed in “reality” tv … gets voted off the island.

So tell me again why we have them?

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