The Optics of Winning: Musings about the Second Presidential Debate

Simone Quartey

Ah, yes. “There you go, again,” as Ronald Reagan once said. We have arrived at the storied and much mythologized second presidential debate of the 2012 election season.

It would be nice to think that presidential debates are a forum of mature and honest discussion about the issues of the day. But who am I kidding, right? Save the wonky policy details for The West Wing. I have tried to grapple with the fact that modern politics will never be the gauzy, intellectual haven like my favorite television show. However it is nice to dream…

Instead, politics is a gritty, cynical world in which fresh-faced Senators from Illinois with bold visions and big dreams can be put through the proverbial meat grinder of Washington D.C. In four years, fresh-faced Senators turn into grey-haired technocrats.

After the first debate, one in which President Barack Obama lost by all accounts, it reinforced a very obvious notion. Politics is an optics game. A game in which style over substance almost always triumphs, especially in a media age that forces otherwise smart and capable men to be reduced to actors playing the role of the most competent and aggressive Alpha male on the planet.

Debates can rarely divulge into the policy minutia of taxes, whether a drone strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities is a good geopolitics in the Middle East or whether Simpson-Bowles is practical when austerity measures have clearly failed Europe.

So this debate, like all Presidential debates, became a kabuki theatre performance. For nearly two hours, the American people were subjected to a testosterone, battle-for-turf war between President Obama and Governor Romney. Forget the undecided voters in the audience. Let’s face it; neither man really answered the any of the questions adequately. This was a battle for winning the hearts of the nearly 70 million Americans watching at home.

President Obama, who over the years has been almost Spock-like in his temperament, became unleashed. He was blistering, sharp and sound-bite ready, a far cry from his middling first debate performance in Denver. He made a fairly adequate case for why his first term had been successful (the usual suspects: cutting taxes, Bin Laden, healthcare, etc.) However, with the exception of vague references to education, manufacturing energy policy, the President did not lay out a precise vision for what he would do in his second term. I was very surprised he did not mention the upcoming fiscal cliff and what that would mean for the American economy as a whole.

Governor Romney on the other hand, was a lot more specific when it came to speaking about the issues, but made the same dubious claims that he has been making from the beginning of the 2012 election season. Between “self-deportation” when referring to immigration policy and claiming that the President has “doubled the deficit” (the CBO estimates the Obama administration’s latest budget will drop the deficit from a high of 1.4 trillion in 2009 to 702 billion dollars in 2014), he played fast and loose with the facts. Then again, he always does.

For me, the moment of high drama came when a voter Kerry Ladka asked a question pertaining to Libya. Instead of making the effective case that the public handling by the Obama Administration of the deaths of four Americans at the Benghazi consulate was inadequate and troubling, Governor Romney lost the debate. An argument that could have effectively teed up the Republican contender’s argument against the Obama administration’s foreign policy became a moment for the President to turn a weakness into strength.

The moment had nothing to do with policy. After all, Governor Romney had a point; the White House did mishandle the Benghazi tragedy publicly, even allowing UN Ambassador Susan Rice to deny that the event was a terrorist attack on Meet the Press.

The brilliance in the moment was President Obama, as cool as a cucumber, saying “Please precede Governor,” allowing his political opponent to get bogged down in a semantic swamp and getting fact checked in real time by a very quick Candy Crowley. Of course, there was the infamous moment in which the President let the Governor know he was the guy in charged.

The optics could not have been worse for the Republican challenger. As Governor Romney sat with an uncomfortable grin like a school boy being scolded, the president, channeling Michael Douglass’s character in The American President, looked determined, mad and righteously indignant as he lectured him on how to be Leader of the Armed Forces.

There were a lot of other memorable moments. The infamous “binders of women” comment is getting plenty of attention on social media. There was also the bizarre shouting match over whose pension had the most Chinese investments. However there are some moments that just become a part of presidential debate lore. Not because those moments are about good policy, but because those moments provide good optics for the eventual winner of the debate.

After all, debates have never, and will never be about policy. For continuing the tradition, I tip my hat to the “winner” of the debate, the President of the United States.