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A Hardlining Moderate Perspective on the First Obama-Romney Presidential Debate

by Carson T. Clark on October 3, 2012

As a college sophomore I competed in a formal academic debate. It was hosted by the Philosophy Club and centered around whether or not Toccoa Falls College was a church. One side said that it was merely a para-church organization–an academic institution with core commitments to christian beliefs and principles. It was said to supplement and complement the Church. The other side argued that it was a church because of its corporate gathering for worship, teaching of core christian theology, administration of the sacraments, and so forth. It was said to be both a church and part of the Church.

Against my will I was appointed to represent the latter position, which was the one furthest from my view even though I thought both overly simplistic and unhelpful. As the debate unfolded my side was clearly losing. Frankly, we were getting it handed to us. The other side was using a dispassionate, expert style in conjunction with precise questions that made their position seem far more plausible. So I did what any competitive person would do. I put my opponents on their heals by ratcheting up the emotion, employing cutting rhetoric, oversimplifying the facts, evading their questions, condescendingly insulted their naivete, and straight-up pulling supposed facts out of my ass in an apparently confident manner.

Result? My side won.

That night I learned two important lessons:

  1. I loathe the medium of formal debates because the ultimate objective is winning rather than truth. My actions were totally in line with the spirit of event but I was belligerent, petty, deceitful, manipulative, misleading, and every other ruthless adjective you can name. In short, I managed to be a conniving jerk while appearing warm yet principled. That night I truly behaved like a politician. Unfortunately, more than a few students in our audience walked out convinced of things that were patently false. Somehow that’s supposed to be considered success. That’s terrible. That’s why I think the whole basis of the medium is not only awful but antithetical to authentic Christianity.
  2. Every participant must engage in soul searching to decide where his or her ultimate commitment lies. Given the reality that the medium is fundamentally about rhetoric rather than truth, they have to determine where and to what extent they’re willing to sacrifice their commitment to truth. It’s an intrinsic part of The Game. They’ve got to ask themselves to what degree they’re willing to void their character to win. For me the answer was that I’d never again do a debate because my ultimate conviction was an unrelenting commitment to pursuing truth. But for a lot of other people the consequences of losing are so dire that the ends justify the means, especially in the political realm.

Why do I say all this?

In my opinion, tonight rhetoric won out over truth. I think Mitt Romney dominated this debate by doing the exact same thing I did in my debate. Yes, that was an intentional backhanded compliment. Romney was the aggressor. He masterfully flip flopped on his well-documented positions, contorted the facts, avoided being pinned down, pulled on the heart strings, and effectively made Obama look like an out of touch academic. The frustrating reality is that he’ll probably be rewarded for this behavior by gaining in the polls just as I was reward by being declared the winner of our little debate. This leaves me with one question: How much will Obama be willing to sell his soul in order to compete in the next debate? We shall see.

  • Elizabeth Walton

    Wasn’t classical debate all about seeking truth and not “winning”?

    I pretty much avoid these current debates. People end up siding with whomever they already preferred, and it just gives one more opportunity to start slinging vitriol in the aftermath. (Last night I had FB acquaintances actually SWOONING over Romney. I thought I might hurl.)

    • Carson T. Clark

      Classical debate? Yes. And thankfully there remains a few occasional instances of this in the academic sphere. But even there it’s tragically absent for the most part. Also, see my comments to Ray above.

  • Ray Hooker

    This is a great analysis and a wonderfully appropriate example in your college debate. I think the reason that many praised Romney is that they already have their minds made up. They saw it more as a contest to be won and not an opportunity to really debate the facts and the policies. I am not sure most realize how much their conclusions of who to support have colored how they saw the debate.

    • Carson T. Clark

      Ehhhh, I need to offer a little well-natured pushback. Even the mildly infamous (to conservatives) Rachel Maddows from MSNBC thought Romney won decidely. I mean, I see your point and think it true of a lot of people, but…. yeah.

  • Stephen

    Romney clearly “won”. Not necessarily because of the strength of his arguments – Obama, for all his faults, actually made decent points – but mainly because of the Presidential Hair. As pretty much always happens, I think the vice-presidential debate will be more interesting.

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