Presidential Debate as Word Warfare: 5 Observations
Here's my take on the October 16 debate. What did you notice?
- "Fight! Fight!" It looked like someone had coached the President to be more aggressive. This combined with the unfortunate physical setup - both the President and Governor Romney were free to roam onstage - led to a very close confrontation with hands upraised, aimed at one another. It did not seem personal to me, more like posturing, but the tension was too close. I noted that the President defused it by turning away. Either way, it seemed a bit out of control and I wondered what was happening. My sense was that Governor Romney felt besieged and cornered, and that he had to set the record straight; while the President felt pressured to show strength and appear forceful. It diminished both of them. I would not have lowered the candidates to the level of physically being so close to one another. Advice: Stand back.
- Matching Pink Dresses: Did anyone else notice that the First Lady and Ann Romney both had a variation of the same dress? I felt like I was going to see this in Us Magazine over the weekend in the "Who Wore It Better?" section. The symbology was: Who's the better wife? Who's the more feminine? Who was going to rush the stage first after the debate. I also wondered whether someone had stolen notes from someone's fashion consultant. Advice: Dress uniquely but conservatively.
- "That's Offensive." When Governor Romney questioned the Administration on Libya, the President led with attacking the attacker. As CNN reported, the President used the same words when responding to accusations of leaking national security secrets. I also recalled (although I can't find the link on this) that Attorney General Holder used the same language while being questioned during his testimony about Operation Fast & Furious (acknowledged at the very least misguided; at worst a scandal). It brings to my mind in the movies when the cheating spouse, accused of cheating, says, "How dare you say that?" e.g., "That's offensive." The fact that I had this reaction tells me that responding to an accusation by saying "That's Offensive" is not the best communication tactic. Advice: Don't respond to an accusation by accusing the accuser. Say something positive instead about the good you have accomplished.
- Moderator as Participant: When Governor Romney accused the President of waiting two weeks to call the Benghazi incident a terror attack, the moderator corrected him. In fact he had referred to "acts of terror" in remarks the day after at the Rose Garden ("No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation.") This morning in Starbucks I overheard someone interpret this as Crowley jumping in to defend the President. Crowley herself, in a live interview on CNN after the debate, said the President had turned to her as if to ask her to correct the record. So she did, briefly, and then acknowledged Governor Romney's point, which was that there was indeed a two-week transition from an emphasis on the YouTube video to a full embrace (so to speak) of the terror narrative. This points up the issue of nuance. Did Crowley jump in because it was awkward, or because she is a reporter and technically Romney's words were incorrect? Did her interruption change the conclusion of the audience (either way) by making it seem the moderator was on the President's side? Advice: If someone misstates a fact about you, direct your objection to the moderator rather than to the audience in a manner that suggests you are concerned about accuracy.
- Numbers vs. Ideas: Governor Romney is clearly more comfortable in numbers territory. He used a lot of them, rapidly, fluidly. He was comfortable talking about functional benefits of electing him, like jobs and lower taxes. He was less comfortable articulating his ideas. Not because he lacked them - for example he talked about the two-parent family and work/life balance - but I think because the conservative Republican agenda is not viewed as mainstream. So he had to portray his idea platform in terms of economic benefit - e.g. that two-parent families end up costing society less. Versus the President was clearly less comfortable with numbers - using descriptive words like "sketchy" versus comparing and contrasting actual figures - but far more comfortable with ideas. Again, I think this is because most Americans agree with the broad concepts of equality, diversity, and helping the less fortunate as he outlines them. At the end of the day, in branding, emotional benefit tends to win out, but only if the functional benefit is credible; I'm not sure the President has that advantage. Advice: Stay with your strength but be able to frame your weakness at some level; don't focus only on a functional or emotional benefit.
Disclaimer: This is solely a communication commentary, not a political endorsement or non-endorsement; all opinions my own.