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October 16, 2012

The Problem of Political "Cartooning": Low-Info Voters, Low-Rent Thinkers & Why Presidential Debates are Good.

Yes, presidential debates are a very good thing.

You can check yourself, and see if you are really seeing things out there correctly. We all come with our own political profile and a little baggage. Most of us have favorites early on. Even the best experienced full-time paid political wonks, Hill staffers and journalists I know--many are not as partisan as you think--have certain prejudices. The debates can be a good reminder of what candidates are really saying (or not saying) and, importantly, what kind of people they might really be. And a heads-up on how much Kool-Aid you've been swilling.

For example, we made predictions at this blog about what to expect both on Obama-Romney Night 1 on October 3 and the Biden-Ryan debate on October 11.

On the first one, Obama-Romney Night 1, we got it right (that he would "win"), except that nothing we wrote could have explained just how well Mitt Romney would in fact do. In terms of his image, he was superb. (Forget about platforms for a minute; that's rarely what presidential elections, even in way-down economies, are about.) And the reason he was superb is that too many of us, including some normally high-information Democrats, have been buying into the notion that he is a cold-hearted insular patrician robot. He may be. But we can thank everyone who unfairly dumbed him down, demonized him and turned him into a nightmarish cartoon over the last year for his victory and "comeback" moment earlier this month. At his best, Mitt Romney can seem like a guy you might even like and trust to be your commander-in-chief. The biggest surprise? The President himself put him over the top with a performance that no one could have predicted.

Sometimes even a reality check doesn't work. Lots of Democrats who watched on October 3 were so out-to-lunch or such bad losers about what happened that they needed to read their usual newspapers to understand that Obama was taken to the cleaners.

On the Biden-Ryan debate of October 11, however, we got that one wrong. Sure, as we noted, Paul Ryan is, in fact, annoying. But he's not dumb. While cagey on a few points of his budget and tax plan, he is an artful debater. His problem that he is, at 42, a very young pol for the national stage. I fully expected Biden to outclass him and tweak his nose. What I did not expect is just how annoying and even whiny Ryan could be--"Weenie Patrol" is a term used in some of our tweets--and what a masterful defense Biden marshaled for his boss. I've watched Biden since 1974, the first year I worked for Congress. I have never seen him better than last week. He, too, was dumbed down in the press by detractors for low-information voters who really never knew that much about Biden. Joe Biden, too, benefited from the "Mitt reverse cartoon effect" syndrome, and he surprised a lot of people who were prepared to see him behave like the craziest guy in some long-forgotten Swampoodle saloon.

Anyway, I am very surprised that we have not become more calm and nuanced in our assessment of national politicians as human beings. Hardly any of our candidates can be explained by a party affiliation on qualities that matter most. None of them, certainly, are evil. But we are desperate, for reasons which escape me, to turn them in to stock characters: heroes and villains who act out all life in good and evil or white or black. Here are some suggestions to break your burning desires to reduce politics and politicians to cultural stereotypes.

1. Have lots of "D", "R", and "I" friends so you can learn something in your life, have more informed discussions and get your head out of your ass. Four years ago, at an impromptu dinner at a local, restaurant in a Midwestern town, I introduced my law partner, a staunch Republican woman, to both a well-known novelist and former university professor and to his guest, a Pulitzer-winning poet who split his time between New York City and Paris. He was in town to give a reading at the professor's former university at his invitation. When the discussion turned to politics, and it came up that my colleague was a Republican, both noted wistfully that they really didn't think they'd even (knowingly) ever met an "R" before. And they seemed surprised that they were so charmed my my partner. Both writers were in their 70s. Shame on you two guys.

2. Don't define yourself by your politics. You are more than that.

3. Don't define others by their politics. You will always be wrong.

4. Try not to follow party-line scripts. (Lawyers--lack of imagination?--love to do this. Go figure.) Think for yourself.

5. All pols--your candidate, theirs--fudge and lie when it comes time to take power or keep it. Get used to it. Don't take it personally.

Oh tonight? Obama-Romney Night 2. Town hall setting. Foreign policy. Obama by three touchdowns for sure. His forum. His subject matter. And the guy's got to perform. He'll sail away from Romney tonight.

But I could be wrong.

Posted by JD Hull at October 16, 2012 11:59 PM


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