Those of us who wanted red meat were disappointed with Governor Romney’s performance in the third and last presidential debate. It seemed he missed the opportunity to follow up on the administration’s vulnerabilities. Even Charles Krauthammer, the most cerebral of commentators, appeared disappointed that Benghazi was not on the menu. Although some viewer’s angst was so great it required leaving the room a couple of times, the governor’s strategy posed a much bigger problem for the president.
How do you have a fight when the other guy refuses to engage?
Romney got in a few short jabs but not what the president (or Romney partisans) expected.
Obama came prepared to paint Romney as a dangerous extremist ready to embroil America in costly military adventures. The Democrats need a new playbook. They tried the same tactic on Reagan and failed miserably. The last time it worked was in 1964 with Barry Goldwater. The result last night was that the president looked petty and arrogant and the governor looked resolute and presidential.
Last night’s debate, and the vice presidential debate before it, provided a stark contrast between the two political parties that transcends differences in policies. Certainly the spin rooms are in full tilt mode following the debate, with each side eager to show that their candidate was the victor in the battle of ideas.
But it is not that simple. The winner depends on who judges and what criteria are used to adjudicate the result. With regard to the judges, it is not ideological biases, but the duality of American culture that provides the two lenses through which the results are viewed. Ignoring the political bias of each camp’s pundits, one may place people into cultural camps instead. These two camps will judge the debate using different criteria than the talking heads who put their spin on the outcome based on partisan bent.
So what are these two cultural camps? In the first camp is the sound bite, rock-star, culture. People in this group are impressed by the clever quip, the “cool” factor, or the hip (sophomoric) antics of a Bill Clinton playing his saxophone on a talk show and Barack Obama sparring with late night comedians.
Contrast President Jimmy Carter with President George W. Bush: Bush always upheld the dignity of the office – and continues to do so. He was pilloried with incredible amounts of hatred and invective, but never responded. He understood, as did George Washington, that was part of the job in a country where the freedom to criticize one’s leaders is sacrosanct. After nearly four years in retirement, Bush continues to uphold the dignity of the office of president. His decision to stay away from the Republican National Convention was indicative of his willingness to put others before his own ego – to refrain from entering the fray – even as a private citizen. President Bush has never taken pot shots from the sidelines. The same cannot be said for Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton.
In the other group are people who believe in such quaint ideas as “character counts”, “the dignity of the office,” and “respecting your opponent.” But their allegiance transcends good manners and preserving the decorum of the office.
They subscribe to the old definition of America, one in which people are not defined by language, ethnicity or religion but by shared beliefs in the ideals of America’s foundational documents. Daniel Hannan said it well in The New Road to Serfdom: “…[I]t is important to remember that America has generally had a civic rather than an ethnic conception of citizenship. The label ‘un-American’ is not affixed to, say, immigrant communities or religious minorities; it is applied to those who want to turn the United States into a fundamentally different country.”
The first group finds value elsewhere. They are beguiled by glitz and entertainment rather than look for substance and depth. They are attracted to the ephemeral, and since the old conception of citizenship is no longer relevant in their lives, they will, whether deliberately or by happenstance, transform America into a “fundamentally different country.”
In last night’s debate President Obama demonstrated that he is much more comfortable with the “rock star” culture than with the “character counts” culture. His sophomoric and demeaning debate tactics may resonate with people who have lost the ability to seek meaning or discern quality. The question is, which camp dominates? Are we still capable of recognizing a good man when we see one?