The blah-blah-blah factor: why debate style matters
posted at 4:46 pm on October 13, 2012 by Libby Sternberg
More than twenty-four hours after the vice presidential debate, analysis continues. Who won? Does it matter?
On the former question, a CNN poll showed viewers believe Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan won, 51-43, while a CBS poll reported the opposite with Democratic Vice President Joseph Biden the victor, 50-31.
On the latter question, it depends whom you ask. Passionate partisan Democrats loved Biden’s performance. Talking Points Memo’s Evan McMorris-Santoro says “there was much to love” about the vice-president’s performance. “Joe Biden kicked butt,” one Democrat was quoted as saying in an ABC story. And the folks at Daily Kos said…well, imagine unicorns and rainbows doing the Snoopy dance of happiness, pausing only long enough to stick their tongues out at Republicans. No need to actually go to their site.
They all thought Biden did what the president didn’t—aggressively counter his opponent. They viewed his interruptions and mugging as appropriate responses to someone they believed was being disingenuous at best. So the debate mattered a great deal to them, reenergizing the president’s worried base. The problem for Democrats: these are votes they had anyway.
Conservatives and dispassionate observers, however, were generally appalled by Biden’s behavior. I’m a professional writer, and it’s hard for me to capture in words how immature his facial expressions, gestures and interruptions made Biden look. Laughing during a discussion of nuclear war sums it all up, though. Who does that?
After the debate, Fox News’s Brit Hume and Greta Van Susteren both talked about how Biden’s laugh reflex is a nervous tic and how in his personal life the man is generous of spirit. Fair enough. But that attribute needs to be paired with a sober attitude toward serious subjects, or at least a respect for those who want to discuss them seriously. What Biden failed to realize was that those who take these issues seriously also included the audience. Laughing at Ryan was laughing at them, too. It was as if Biden were the annoying jokester who can’t resist making puns while you’re trying to listen to an interesting conversation or watch a dramatic movie. Shut up already, you feel like saying.
Candidates should be judged on the substance of their ideas on various issues, of course. But none of us has a crystal ball that tells us which issues will become priorities because of changing circumstances. So we also judge candidates on their personalities and characters, and what these say about their decision-making capabilities and inclinations. In that sense, style might tell us something: is this fellow a clear thinker, does this woman consider all points of view? Can I trust him or her?
Unfortunately for Biden, his snarky attitude made him seem at least unbelievable if not outright untrustworthy. Sure, he was able to use all the right jargon and toss around information. But in that sense, he was like the quirky guy everybody ignores when he goes on at great length, with Cheshire-cat grin and encyclopedic knowledge, about how the Red Sox will absolutely, positively—no doubt whatsoever, my good friend—win next year. We’ve all had our shoulders tapped by that fellow. We might find him amusing and once in a blue moon he might be right, but it’s a bit frightening imagining him a heartbeat away from…well, I always have trouble finishing that sentence.
But, back to actual substance and its interplay with style: Watching the first presidential debate, I thought one of Mitt Romney’s advantages was that he came off as trustworthy, with some enumerated ideas on issues, while the president seemed to be spewing a lot of blah-blah-blah, the usual talking points that come from a candidate’s mouth about fairness… moving forward…American people…what-a-mess-I-inherited, for the love of God.
Blah-blah-blah falls into two categories—the vague talking-points discussion mentioned above or a bunch of material (think quirky guy’s encyclopedic knowledge of Red Sox history) the interested but undecided voter hasn’t had a chance to study.
During the veep match-up, both candidates were throwing facts, figures, analysis, details around fast and furiously (although, ironically, the Fast and Furious scandal itself did not come up). When that happens, I believe undecided voters or nonpartisan voters (voters who switch “team” loyalties from year to year depending on the candidate) hear blah-blah-blah from both sides and end up favoring the candidate they believe they can trust.
Although I’ve expressed my dismay over the undecided voter—how can they be undecided at this point?—I do understand the befuddlement they must experience when confronted with a raft of material they’ve not been following but want to understand. They must feel they are coming up on a test for which they’ve not adequately studied. In a sense, all of us are in that “unprepared” state concerning all facets of foreign policy. We might be able to Google various government documents and studies concerning domestic issues, but we won’t see the classified intelligence briefings the candidates have seen.
That brings us back to trustworthiness.
A brief television news discussion recently centered on how voters have come to distrust campaign ads that feature the opponent saying something negative because voters now automatically assume that both sides take quotes out of context. Thus, a new positive Romney ad that featured the candidate alone talking about his ideas received good reviews from those on the TV show. Romney had already demonstrated in the first debate that he was likeable and confident. The ad helped reinforce that image. This discussion was on MSNBC.
Before the first presidential debate, voters probably had a vague idea that Romney was a rich guy who might not understand their problems well enough to look out for their interests. His debate performance showed a likable fellow who has positive ideas, and who also happens to be rich. But I don’t think Americans despise the rich as much as the president’s team would like them to.
Unfortunately for the president, he appeared unengaged and sometimes– because of the vagueness of his answers –uninformed. Unfortunately for Vice President Joe Biden, he appeared just…well, awfully odd.
The rest, to the undecided voter, is just a bunch of blah-blah-blah.
Libby Sternberg is a novelist.