An old law school friend said it best in a Facebook post: This was “an entire debate of agreeing disagreeably.”
President Obama emerged the victor in this debate because of his adroit mastery of foreign policy facts, in sharp contrast to Governor Romney’s more hesitant performance. Romney clearly had studied for the debate, and was able to recite policy details by rote. But memorizing facts is not the same thing as deploying them persuasively. Because Romney crammed his answers full of as many details as he could grab onto, his answers lacked sharpness, alternating between rambling (for example, a strange monologue about why we shouldn’t walk away from Pakistan in reply to an answer about Afghanistan) or the shotgun approach that law students sometimes employ when faced with a tricky final exam—reciting everything you know (Syria, Libya, Qatar, Mali, Russia, indict Ahmadinejad on genocide charges?) in the hope that something that you say will be right.
The strangest turn of events, though, was how often Romney agreed with President Obama. His answers to questions about drone strikes, Israel, Iran, Syria, bombing Libya, and entering Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden all supported Obama’s positions, albeit with the gloss that Romney might have taken various actions sooner or with more force. But despite his claim that he is the more forceful of the two men, his physicality as the debate continued told a different tale. Romney’s delivery became ever more stilted as the event wore on, characterized by a frozen smile, an ever-reddening countenance and, ultimately, a telltale sheen of sweat on his face. He was much less comfortable than during his winning performance of the first debate, perhaps because in his answers he essentially agreed with many things the president has done.
Obama won the debate because his knowledge of foreign policy is deep, and he was able to explain complex ideas concisely. Even so, his answers would have been better if he’d backed off a little on the bullying tone. Take, for example, one of the more memorable exchanges of the night, in response to Romney’s assertion that the Navy is too small (“I want to make sure that we have the ships that are required by our Navy.”) Obama’s response:
I think Governor Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works. You — you mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets — (laughter) — because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. And so the question is not a game of Battleship where we’re counting ships. It’s — it’s what are our capabilities.
It’s a zingy answer that got a laugh from the audience. But imagine the same answer, without the patronizing definitions (“Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets — (laughter) — because the nature of our military’s changed. We have aircraft carriers now, and nuclear submarines. You can’t measure the strength of our navy by counting ships, like a came of Battleship. You have to look instead of our capabilities.”) You’d still get the laugh, but without risking the derisive tone.
Similarly, President Obama could have been even more effective if he had resisted the temptation to reach for sarcasm when responding to Governor Romney. He rightfully pointed out statements in which Romney was changing positions or twisting facts (“whoppers”). When he did so, though, he tended speak dismissively, such as in this exchange about the biggest geopolitical threat facing America:
The points are fair ones, but the tone takes away from the performance.
Both candidates used disrespectful tones and body language throughout the debates. While it is certainly a mistake to offer a flat performance, reaching for tones of outrage again and again is also wearing. Audiences will tire of an overheated tone over time. Minds will not be changed. Perhaps the nation is polarized enough at this point that minds weren’t going to be changed by these debates, but it’s certainly a better rhetorical exercise to try.