I don’t know Mitt Romney. I can’t even say I’ve followed him closely enough to say that I know his type. But his debate win on Wednesday brought two memories to the fore of my mind.
Yes, I acknowledge that Mitt won the debate. HIs points were cohesive, his direction was focused (even at the expense of the moderator and the rules of the debate), and his rhetoric was resoundingly full of internal logic. But winning a debate in the fashion that Governor Romney did is more ominous than anything else, from my personal experience.
The first memory conjured by his performance was that of the persistent arguments that my parents would engage in when I was a child. My mother had a submissive bent to her personality (that’s where I get that from) and my father had a type A, controlling personality. Inevitably, even the most mundane of household disputes became a debate in my father’s hands. Having attended a school of preaching and being a very practiced and studied debater, he would present points in a methodical fashion, then draw logical conclusions from those points to prove that my mother was wrong. My mother, because of her own native intelligence, did not often engage him on that level. She knew that she was up against a trained orator who could win any argument because one could see him crafting his argument several steps ahead to lead to that inevitable conclusion: he was correct. She was largely left floundering in these discussions, because he made the rules. No unsubstantiated opinions were allowed, only facts. Of course, relationship disputes are 90% subjective, so my father was sectioning off the part of the discussion that he could control, and ignoring the important part.
The second memory is from my professional career. I was preparing to report the results of a study I had spent a month preparing to some high-level executives. I knew my subject matter inside and out and was prepared to give a low-key, fact-based presentation on the points of improvement. These were my co-workers, high level though they might be, so I had no reason to believe that they wouldn’t hear me out–that’s what they were there to do.
I had barely begun explaining my points when I was pelted with numerous questions having nothing to do with what the report involved. The attitude was clearly, “Don’t waste our time and just tell us what we want to know.” They quickly became dismissive of points of detail that they couldn’t grasp and asked me questions in turn that were out of my depth, then dismissed me again when I didn’t have ready answers to those questions. I withered. My month of research fell on entirely deaf ears.
Before I connect the dots to Romney, I want to make clear the dots I am NOT connecting. I am in no way suggesting that President Obama is a shrinking violet like my mother (and myself at times, when I’m sufficiently intimidated). You don’t get to a position like that by having that type of demeanor. I don’t mean to say that Obama is more human than Romney, although he does a hell of a lot better job acting like he is.
But I know that certain people win and certain people gain advantages by being blowhards who sound like they know what they are talking about when they don’t. Some people know very much about some things and parlay that skill into making people believe that they know very much about other things they know little about. Some people are control freaks who rewrite rules that were already established or make them up as they go to make themselves look authoritative, thereby engendering (or stealing) more respect and more authority.
At this point, I know what you’re saying: “Welcome to politics, my friend.” Why is all of this suddenly necessary to point out now that Obama (whom I support, if you haven’t figured that out by now) didn’t win the debate? Yes, in a way, this is a very fundamental argument questioning the very legitimacy of the debate format as a criterion for selecting a leader. I will concede that although not all politicians are bad, 99% of them are egotists, so my father and those execs share those traits with everyone in Washington and all the state capitals, not just poor Romney (irony intended). So what, indeed, is my point?
A leader must talk the talk and walk the walk. Obama failed to talk the talk on Wednesday, but Romney stumbled mightily in trying to walk, while talking up a storm. Here’s how:
Diplomacy and tact. If you thought good ol’ W was bad news for foreign relations, behold how much trouble Romney’s mouth will mean. His debate talking points were sterling, but his anecdotal flourishes were rife with gaffes, the likes of which would probably get us in at least a couple of wars over the next four years. No wonder he wants a strong military–he knows we’re going to need it. The infamous Big Bird comment was galling in its lack of tact. Big Bird is the image the OTHER side brings up to drum up sympathy, not the image one wants to evoke when telling the nation how one plans to compassionately cut federal spending. (Somebody please keep this man away from Palestine.) Not to mention that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has a federal budget proportionate to what I spend on toothpaste in a year in my personal household budget. I love clean teeth and all, but we’ve got to cut corners somewhere.
Rules of engagement. Didn’t anyone else hear Romney explaining to Jim Lehrer how the order of responses needed to work? That was an awkward 30 seconds which made me suddenly feel like I was playing Monopoly with my friends and one wanted to insist that the official rules say you put money on the board when you land on Free Parking. (They don’t say that.) Monopoly is a game, so it’s OK to quibble over the rules. Not quite so much in front of 60 million Americans. He came off to me as pompous and spoiled in that moment. Are we to think that he’s going to follow some sort of different example when it comes to the Constitution?
Contextual sensitivity. Any leader will misspeak or say something off-the-cuff without thinking. On the heels of the 47% brouhaha, I would have thought that Romney would have been more careful. And to be fair, there’s been no similar uproar related to his debate performance, so I suppose I’m overreacting.
Nonetheless, I thought he made a couple of comments that could have been disastrous if the right people in the media had gotten hold of them. The most unnerving to me was likening Obama’s repeating points that Romney felt were untrue (which Romney did also, incidentally) to the behavior of his five male children. Maybe it’s just me, but the last thing I would want to do as a rich white man perceived to be out of touch with most Americans is to compare our first black president to my “boys.” The word “paternalism” just rolls off the tongue. I don’t know Romney’s heart–I only know it was a risky jab.
A good leader needs more than a command of facts (whether they were real or manufactured in this case is a subject for another time). He needs to keep his ego in check, understanding that how he presents his points and respects the trappings of his situation is just as important as winning. This is a presidential skill. I don’t think he has it yet.
In closing, I’d like to fantasize as an Obama supporter that the low-key, faltering performance he gave was intentional. Call it the “enough rope” strategy. Get Romney all excited with how he’s mopping the floor with Obama and let him say something so gleefully inept that his campaign goes permanently kaput. Maybe to a point that was the strategy, but that doesn’t excuse the lack of crispness that Obama displayed.
In my evaluation of the debate, though, Obama’s lack of polish was dwarfed by Romney’s lack of anything except debate skills. As I can tell you from listening to my parents argue, debate skills can be woefully inadequate on their own. And empathy can also take you far with those you lead, as I have learned by exception in my professional experience.