So the verdict is in – most political pundits have declared that Mitt Romney won the first debate. Some commentary I’ve read suggests that Romney was “aggressive, without being offensive,” “he answered the questions with specificity and clarity,” and “he seemed to relish in sparring with Obama.”
I’d agree with most of the assessments out there. Very early in the debate it became clear that Romney’s strategy was ATTACK, ATTACK, ATTACK! What I find most intriguing, however, are the unspoken patriarchal values undergirding the claims of a Romney victory.
By far the most frequently used adjective to describe Romney’s performance was aggressive; and aggressive he was! From his opening remarks onward, Romney controlled the tone of the debate: frequently talking over Jim Lehrer (even telling Lehrer at one point how the debate should be moderated), disregarding time constraints (which Obama also did, and is common in such debates), and foregoing the questions being asked to playfully attack the comments of the President.
If the valuing of Romney’s aggressive nature in the debate wasn’t enough, it seemed that the President’s performance was devalued because he was poised, substantive, graceful, and slow-speaking. Pundits critiqued the President’s failure to go blow-for-blow with Romney. One pundit went so far as to suggest to the President, “When you are in a fight, you’ve gotta swing!” Furthermore, some pundits also critiqued the fact that Obama seemed to be actually listening to Romney – signaled by the occasional head nod and smirk.
Here me say, I get it – I understand exactly what the political pundits are saying. I understand why one would suggest a Romney victory in the debate. I even understand why one might critique the President’s performance. I do, indeed, get it! The winner and loser of the debate, however, is not my primary concern. (If you are asking, I’d say that neither candiate won, but Jim Lehrer definitely lost). My primary concern/question stems from the fact that Romney’s alleged victory in the debate has everything to do with a society that is incredibly invested in the performance of patriarchal masculinity.
Throughout the debate and commentary, I consistently returned to the questions – why does a more aggressive performance = victory? Why is it that a calm, calculated, gracious performance is so heavily criticized? The only fitting answer I could come up with is that it stems from the unchecked patriarchy running rampant in our society.
Sadly, the Presidential Debates are frequently not more than another arena in which race, gender, and class are performed, mainstreamed, and commodified. Last night’s debate was no exception. Sadly, if two men are on a stage – even if they happen to be in suits and you call it a debate – people want to see a fight! It’s not so much about what you say, but how you say it and how small you can make the other person look. Sadly, in our society, if you put two men on a stage and ask them to debate, the winner will inevitably be determined by who throws the most jabs and who can most artfully toe the lie between being aggressive and offensive.
The fact of the matter is, both candidates told some one-sided truths and over-exaggerated stats and figures to make themselves sound a little better than the other. Both candidates disregarded previously agreed upon rules to convey their one-sided truths. Furthermore, the candidate who allegedly won the debate, Mitt Romney, used this debate to pivot and reboot his campaign: seemingly changing some of his opinions/policies to the point that what should have been key discussion points in the debate were lost because now, suddenly, key differences between the President and Romney’s policies were not all that different anymore- at least according to Romney.
But, no – that’s not what we talk about post-debate. We do not determine the winner by who most clearly articulates their policies with consistency and clarity. We do not determine the winner by who sticks most closely to the rules, showing respect for the other parties involved.
Two men stood on a stage and fought debated, so we have to determine a clear winner and a clear loser. And the winner, my dear friends, is the one who threw the most punches; the one who drew the most blood; the one who most forcefully, yet subtly, showcased his patriarchal masculinity to the country. (Isn’t that what we like to do? Dress our patriarchal masculinity up in a nice suit, pin it with an American flag, and send it out on the stage to dance for a little while? Perhaps no one will notice that it is, indeed, patriarchal masculinity functioning because it looks so dog-gone nice and speaks so gosh-darn well about issues that are “pertinent to my well-being”?)
The winner is the one unafraid to attack, the one gifted in rhetorical sparring, the one who most sneakily disregards the rules to convey his one-sided truth. That winner, my dear friends, was Mitt Romney. Sorry, President Obama: you just weren’t aggressive enough. You just didn’t swing! Perhaps by October 16th the polls will shift and you’ll craftily execute your own version of patriarchal masculinity in the debate to squeak out a win and re-tilt the polls in your favor.