President Obama clearly “lost” the first Presidential debate last Wednesday. It’s important to understand why, and how it can be compared to my grading process. There are two ways to measure any argument. You can measure style and you can measure substance.
Style is easy to see, easy to get right, easy to grade and easy to be impressed by. For example, I teach my students how to format their essays using MLA style format. It is also the first thing I check. Checking for proper formatting takes about 10 seconds. Are the margins one inch? Are the tabs right? Is the Works Cited page correct? If it’s wrong, it takes time to grade because I have to explain to the student why it’s wrong. If it’s right, I move on. Subconsciously, however, a well formatted paper has a much better chance of getting an “A”because of it’s look. In my brain and all our brains, looking good IS good. It’s hard for us to separate the two.
Mitt Romney looked amazing last night. Obama looked tired. Romney looked aggressive and most people think aggression is a good quality to have for a President. Romney spoke with passion, another quality trait, I guess. Obama didn’t look or act up to the task and, because he didn’t look good, he wasn’t good.
If you look for substance, though, it’s a different story.
I read the transcripts of the speech. Below is a section from the debate about Wall Street Regulation.
LEHRER: All right. So to finish quickly, briefly, on the economy, what is your view about the level of federal regulation of the economy right now? Is there too much? And in your case, Mr. President, is there — should there be more?
Beginning with you. This is not a new two-minute segment to start. And we’ll go for a few minutes, and then we’re going to go to health care, OK?
ROMNEY: Regulation is essential. You can’t have a free market work if you don’t have regulation. As a businessperson, I had to have — I need to know the regulations. I needed them there. You couldn’t have people opening up banks in their — in their garage and making loans. I mean, you have to have regulations so that you can have an economy work. Every free economy has good regulation. At the same time, regulation can become excessive.
LEHRER: Is it excessive now, do you think?
ROMNEY: In some places, yes. Other places, no.
LEHRER: Like where?
ROMNEY: No, it can become out of date. And what’s happened with some of the legislation that’s been passed during the president’s term, you’ve seen regulation become excessive, and it’s hurt — it’s hurt the economy. Let me give you an example.
Dodd-Frank was passed. And it includes within it a number of provisions that I think has some unintended consequences that are harmful to the economy. One is it designates a number of banks as too big to fail, and they’re effectively guaranteed by the federal government. This is the biggest kiss that’s been given to — to New York banks I’ve ever seen. This is an enormous boon for them. There’ve been 122 community and small banks have closed since Dodd- Frank.
So there’s one example. Here’s another. In Dodd-Frank…
LEHRER: Do you want to repeal Dodd-Frank?
ROMNEY: Well, I would repeal and replace it. We’re not going to get rid of all regulation. You have to have regulation. And there are some parts of Dodd-Frank that make all the sense in the world. You need transparency, you need to have leverage limits for…
LEHRER: Well, here’s a specific…
ROMNEY: But let’s — let’s mention — let me mention the other one. Let’s talk…
LEHRER: No, let’s not. Let’s let him respond — let’s let him respond to this specific on Dodd-Frank and what the governor just said.
OBAMA: I think this is a great example. The reason we have been in such a enormous economic crisis was prompted by reckless behavior across the board.
Now, it wasn’t just on Wall Street. You had loan officers were — that were giving loans and mortgages that really shouldn’t have been given, because the folks didn’t qualify. You had people who were borrowing money to buy a house that they couldn’t afford. You had credit agencies that were stamping these as A1 great investments when they weren’t.
But you also had banks making money hand over fist, churning out products that the bankers themselves didn’t even understand, in order to make big profits, but knowing that it made the entire system vulnerable.
So what did we do? We stepped in and had the toughest reforms on Wall Street since the 1930s. We said you’ve got — banks, you’ve got to raise your capital requirements. You can’t engage in some of this risky behavior that is putting Main Street at risk. We’ve going to make sure that you’ve got to have a living will so — so we can know how you’re going to wind things down if you make a bad bet so we don’t have other taxpayer bailouts.
OBAMA: In the meantime, by the way, we also made sure that all the help that we provided those banks was paid back every single dime, with interest.
Now, Governor Romney has said he wants to repeal Dodd-Frank.
And, you know, I appreciate and it appears we’ve got some agreement that a marketplace to work has to have some regulation. But in the past, Governor Romney has said he just want to repeal Dodd- Frank, roll it back.
And so the question is: Does anybody out there think that the big problem we had is that there was too much oversight and regulation of Wall Street? Because if you do, then Governor Romney is your candidate. But that’s not what I believe.
Romney’s answer is safe. Regulation is important. He thinks it’s too excessive. He wants to replace it with something better. If you support Romney and hate Obama, this is a great answer. It’s also about as deep as a rain puddle during a three month drought. It’s not an answer. It’s evasion. It’s not a lie, either. It’s simply a smart way to avoid answering a question.
President Obama’s answer is much more detailed and nuanced. It is the substance. It’s also boring. If you don’t read about regulations and Wall Street and the financial crisis of 2008, then you have absolutely no idea what Obama is talking about. Does that make you dumb? Well….I’m not saying that. But, well, maybe you should read more. Romney’s answers are easier to understand and digest because they aren’t really answers. Obama’s answers are hard to understand and digest because they are too obtuse and convoluted.
I tell my students on the first day of class something: If the reader doesn’t understand what you’re writing, it’s your fault. You didn’t make your answer clear. You didn’t think about your reader. You tried to impress them and not convince them. Obama didn’t make the sale, so he’s in some political hot water. To be honest, he deserves it. It’s his job to convince the American people that he should remain the President. If he can’t do that, he doesn’t deserve to be.