Inspiration was the package aiming to be delivered at Wednesday night’s first presidential debate. Unfortunately, even inspiration was relatively low on the outcome, as was lucid and concise policy-specific debate. Carefully thought out, marketable promises with hopeful, but none too clarifying rhetoric was the entirety of the menu for both candidates.
President Obama began the debate replying to Jim Lehrer’s request that candidates outline their main differences in approaching the issue of job creation.
“I think we’ve got to invest in education and training,” he said and went onto to cite the importance of altering the tax code to “make sure that we’re helping small businesses.” Finally the President left the segment inviting Americans to embrace a “new economic patriotism” with no actual account of what that means for businesses, for taxpayers, schools, or anything else.
But Romney provided no great clarity either, beginning his side of the discussion with sentimental accounts of two Americans in need and proceeding to detail his five point plan for success. First on the agenda was to “get American energy independent,” the importance of which few would disagree with. No plan for the sought after independence was offered—apparently the tagline was plan enough.
Such was the tone throughout the debate. It is a tone that although somewhat varied, has become commonplace as the race for the most powerful job in the world has continued to evolve over the past few decades.
The paradoxically loaded and yet vague rhetoric that has descended upon political campaigns throughout the United States has rendered me, as a viewer, a bit envious of the Sarkozy-Hollande showdowns characterizing French political debates. However, as with every coin, there are two sides to this one as well.
And this is it: When Governor Romney simply says he wants to “champion small businesses” we get to ask how? Where is this outlined in your policies? How will you push it through? Is there any precedent to this plan’s success? Who did the study supporting the outcomes of your plan? Were they only conservative institutions conducting the research?
And when Obama states he would like to hire 100,000 more math and science teachers, as citizens we are better positioned to ask– or to know to ask– where is the money going to come from? Will it take away from existing programs? Where will the teachers be hired? Are these the subjects with the greatest need for more instructors? Do we have qualified people to fill the positions?
Thus with a lack of detail, what should be the incipient state is one of inquiry on the part of constituents. Is it the hope of either candidate that their rhetoric would do much other than inspire their voters and sway those on the other side? Probably not.
But the umbrella statements, vague word choice and inspiring but somewhat distant bylines of our candidates can actually serve to enrich our governance, our problem solving abilities as a nation, by forcing us to ask more questions of our candidates and creating a curious, probative constituency.
There are however, two troubling aspects. First, it is concerning that for whatever reason our candidates do not or choose not to use language that would better elucidate the issues and more specifically, policy. Secondly, such an advantage depends upon citizens wanting to become better informed, asking questions in earnest and approaching debates and other such political events with an analytical mindset as opposed to simply being cheerleaders for the red or blue team.
Given that, the level of insightfulness and productivity of the rhetoric that will be used in political debates and rallies lies actually in the hands of Americans—in the extent to which we either ask questions or demand answers be given in the first place.