I have opined in an earlier post that America is, indeed, at a crossroads. Crucial choices we make next month as an electorate will decide the future direction of a country struggling to keep its identity as “a shining city on a hill”. Will we continue to be, as Bill Bennett argues, the world’s “Last Best Hope?” Or shall we continue what many perceive as a decline in our world stature……the “next” failed empire, and follow the Euro-zone into relativism and economic implosion?
We are now in the stage of the campaign where the swords of the contestants are crossed in a series of ‘debates’. The vitriol and negativism of the media machinery are at their height, but this is not new. The heat of the campaign ‘kitchen’ has always been intense. A study of campaigns as far back as those of Adams, Jefferson and Jackson will reveal shocking assertions and tactics, so low in many instances as to raise even the eyebrows of modern pundits and analysts. It is almost as if the debates are an island of civility in a roiling sea of acrimony and vitriol. The contestants are introduced, smile and shake each other’s hand, and retire to predetermined podiums or tables where they are expected to “play nice” and to concede to the authority of a ‘moderator’.
This is, after all, a time-honored tradition, going back centuries. ‘The debates’ are as much a part of the political culture as the keynote speeches of the conventions or the ceremonial casting of votes by the contenders in their home states and cities or towns.
It is a positive thing for the country that this tradition can persevere. With the polarization of the electorate now so severe that 80% of the campaign visits of either candidate have centered on a mere handful of “swing-states”, it is perhaps more crucial than ever that the debate productions remind us all that the issues can be discussed; argued; and analyzed in a civil and controlled manner, and in a forum where rules exist and are enforced to ensure a level field of play and a courteous (if spirited) dialogue. The drums of division can, at least for a moment, be stilled. The jingoism and crude characterization of either side in slogans or placards by the other can be suspended.
I was a high school debater. I enjoyed it enough that I happily worked hard enough at the research; rehearsal; and skills of dialogue and extemporization to become a captain of our team when I was a senior. Under the aegis of the “N.F.L.“, (National Forensic League) I was able to overcome stage fright; shyness and self-doubt to develop skills which helped my team to tie for third place in the state during my senior year. While it developed my oratorical skills and honed my ability to speak publicly, what was most important for me was that it taught me the merits of logical analysis and the benefits to persuasion of structured argument.
It is no secret that the tradition of presidential debate was solidified forever in 1960; when the public was introduced to the first televised series of presidential debates. This innovation had two results for the country. The first was positive. The second was not.
First, it helped the contestants reach an audience never before achieved in electoral history. Television enabled the electorate to hear, and to react, to the arguments in real-time, without the need to have to read it in a newspaper the next day. One no longer had to have the patience and/or ability to read lengthy narratives or quotes to be truly informed about the candidates’ stands on the crucial issues of the day.
Second, it allowed the media to become more powerful an “estate”. The “fourth estate” was now able to relate to the public not just the narrative and the textual content of the candidates’ assertions and responses to each other, but also its’ “take”, or “slant” on matters irrelevant to the arguments; the logic; or the oratorical skills of the candidates. The media/press was emboldened by the technology of television to opine; assert, and yes, to judge the contestants on matters theretofore only the province of Hollywood or Broadway critics.
The victory of Kennedy over Nixon was as narrow as we have seen, even in recent years. Had the media not made such an issue of Nixon’s’ apparent perspiration (in the heavy lights of black-and-white television production back then); or of the existence of his ‘five o’clock shadow’ it is arguable that the election could have turned out differently. This ‘judging’ was not of logic or analysis, but rather of physical attributes. Debates had gone ‘Hollywood‘.
And so began the decline, (at least to this writer) of the quality of the ‘debates’. Less emphasis on qualitative logic and analysis, and much more emphasis on “gotcha” moments (remember Quayle’s blinking disbelief at the comment ‘…you’re no Jack Kennedy“…? or….Reagan’s ‘home run’ zinger…”…there you go again“…?). My interest in the debates began to wane. As argumentative skill was no longer at a premium to the ‘judges’, I realized that the media had taken over the playing field. The condensation of the ‘zingers” and the ‘gotcha’ moments would flood the printed pages and the airwaves, and the “winner” would be the one with the least stutters; the best laughs; and the fewest ‘fact-checkable’ assertions.
Until last Tuesday.
When I saw the performance of our Vice President, I began to realize that the time-honored tradition of classic oratory and debating skill was still alive and well. That Joe Biden…..what a guy!
Allow me to demonstrate. In classic debate forums; a debate is judged objectively, and a ‘victory’ goes to the contestant most adept in the following categories:
Logically Defensible Case–(Selection of Arguments): Mr. Biden was masterful at summing up the defense of the ‘status ‘quo’ of the last four years. The Obama administration was in control of the economy; the situation in Libya and the proper pace of the draw-down of troops in Iraq. He supported these assertions with geometric logic which was irrefutable and unrebuttable.
Analysis–(Ability to Analyze the Topic Area): Again, “Joltin’ Joe” was in command throughout the debate. The Libyan embassy situation, for example, was a result of intelligence failings, and as a result the administration could not have done anything different. His logic was concise and his analysis was keen.
Organization–(Ability to Organize Ideas into a Structured Whole): The vice-president’s ability to organize complex issues enabled him to harness the minutia of myriad statistical studies and to present them in layman’s’ terms
Evidence–-(Support of Arguments with Information): Again, the clear winner here was Biden. He was able to use the “wonkishness” of Mr. Ryan against him by reminding the other “average Joes” out there in the audience that Ryan was like the smartest kid in the class at school that everybody hated. Mr. Ryan’s almost ‘savant’ command of economic data was used as evidence that Romney/Ryan were not to be trusted.
Language–(Phrasing of Concepts Clearly and Concisely): Decades of public service had served Mr. Biden well. He has a folksiness and beaming smile which is at once disarming and brutal. He was easy to understand. He spoke the language of the ‘common man’
Refutation–(Perception of Irrelevant or Irrational Arguments): The vice-president was able to parry each and every one of Mr Ryan’s’ assertions directly, with a “matter-of-factness” that was devastating.
Use of Allotted Time–(Conciseness of argument): An old law school professor of mine use to tell us, before the essay portion of our final examinations, that “brevity is its’ own reward”. Joe was succinct; to the point; and never went over his allotted time.
There you have it. Mr. Biden was the clear winner as a function of forensic debate parameters. His performance has already become the stuff of legend. (What a guy!!)
One hopes he will participate in the coaching of the President in his preparations for the second debate with Mr. Romney. The style he seems to champion seems like a natural fit for someone ‘at sea’ without a teleprompter.
We can only hope……