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Hungry for zingers? We citizens get what we deserve*

08 Oct

The cynical side of me wanted to skip the presidential debate this Wednesday. But with so much build-up and punditry surrounding this made-for-TV event that pretends to be a way a democracy decides on its leader, I gave in.

Truth be told, I am one of those decidedly ‘undecideds.’ I had decided to not be influenced by this stylized boxing match.

I happen to teach Language Arts, so I wanted to watch it from the perspective of rhetoric. I often I ask young people to pay attention to turns of phrase, juxtaposition, and tone-of-voice. It’s how writers and speakers hold –or lose– an audience. So in this debate I was less concerned with facts and half-truths (we have to expect plenty of the latter, in this setting) and more with how the idea was packaged and delivered.

My three observations:

1. Trickle-Down Twist: Many of you are all familiar with trickle-down economics, a term often associated with president Reagan, but really refers to supply-side economics. I liked how Romney added a twist to it, by introducing the term trickle-down Government.

“The president has a view very similar to the view he had when he ran four years, that a bigger government, spending more, taxing more, regulating more — if you will, trickle-down government — would work.”

Note how he forced Obama into a corner, by starting out the sentence saying his view coupling it with loaded keywords such as big government, regulation, spending

Obama’s come-back?  None. His limp attempt to punch a hole in this branch of macro-economics later, was a painfully professorial argument that was lost in the weeds:

“Now, that’s not my analysis. That’s the analysis of economists who have looked at this. And — and that kind of top — top-down economics, where folks at the top are doing well, so the average person making $3 million is getting a $250,000 tax break, while middle-class families are burdened further, that’s not what I believe is a recipe for economic growth.”

Got that? A 48-word summary of an analysis may have had its place at some dull economic summit, but not here, with a debate divided into tight ‘pods’ by the moderator.

2. Tax Cuts Vs Tax Offset. Obama  tried to clarify his position versus Romney’s as being based on tax cuts.

“And this is where there’s a difference, because Governor Romney’s central economic plan calls for a $5 trillion tax cut — on top of the extension of the Bush tax cuts — that’s another trillion dollars …”

But Romney’s pushed back calling it tax offset, and attacking it thus: “Mr. President, Mr. President, you’re entitled as the president to your own airplane and to your own house, but not to your own facts.” In effect, he was pushing the president into a corner, saying “liar, liar, presidential pants on fire.”

Romney may have been, as numerous fact-checkers very quickly pointed out, tiptoeing with his numbers himself. FactCheck.org called him “a serial exaggerator.”  Romney’s website does state clearly he plans to “Make permanent, across-the-board 20 percent cut in marginal rates” and “Eliminate taxes for taxpayers with AGI below $200,000..”  But who reads campaign websites? It’s too much work; much easier to watch the debate pod!  Romney’s zinger about the airplane +White House +facts was perfect for the Twitterverse.

3. Birdseed For Social Media. Speaking of Twitter, you have to imagine that Romney’s attack on Big Bird was a well planned sidebar. It is a silly piece if information, since PBS accounts for such a minuscule amount of government money (the govt spends $0.223 billion on PBS vs $4 billion subsidizing oil companies). But it adds color to a dull fight between two men in suits on a dark stage.

I believe Big Bird was seeded by those the Romney campaign who knew social media users would love something not-so-boring to tweet about. The yellow bird generated 135,000 tweets per minute while the debate was on! One of the many insta-Twitter accounts that ensued, @FeedTheBird, has tens of thousands of followers.

Will social media, or even the ‘verdict’ of who won, matter in whom the country chooses? My optimistic side believes it will not. But we cannot discount how TV debates have indeed swayed elections. If you are cynical, you will want to believe that we citizens feed this machine that produces a televised horse race. We are ready to scan past the deeper arguments and remember the zingers, and the candidates feed our appetite.

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