Mitt Romney won the debate, but what did he win?

Here’s the problem.  We’re a nation more into style than substance. The 1st debate between President Barack Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney had the makings of a conversation about in what direction the nation really needs to move. However, unless you had already devoted much time to knowing the issues and the candidates’ promises, it was difficult, as it usually is, to know not only the truth but also the effect of different paths of tax and spending policies. Each candidate did express different paths, but did we learn anything about which is the better way? We learned what we sometimes do, that one candidate was more convincing and politically profited from the moment.

If the candidates were honest and each more intelligently challenging of the other when his opponent painted too optimistic or too negative a take on a policy, that might have worked. If the moderator had known when someone was stretching a fact, and was willing to speak up, that might have helped, too. But neither happened consistently in the October 3rd debate. The moderator occupied a chair. If he had intelligently interrupted more it would have upset some partisans, but it  could have provided clarity.

The bigger fault, however, rests with the candidates. To his credit, Mitt Romney was more challenging and engaging than Barack Obama. President Obama failed at several key moments. Obama at times seemed unhappy about not being there, which has happened before to sitting Presidents. He at other moments seemed insecure or unfocused. When he spoke substantively, it often sounded like the first layer of a response and not the stronger, confident statements of a leader. When he did respond, sometimes it ironically was the failure of style, as much as substance to refute the aggressive, confident Romney. He also missed opportunities. For example, when Romney said he never heard of the tax deduction Obama talked about for companies sending jobs out of the country, Romney joked that maybe he, Romney, should get a new accountant. The President could have countered by asking Romney if that meant that Romney had sent  jobs (or cash) overseas. That would have certainly been a debating point. Perhaps, it would have led to a deeper discussion. For his part, for example, Romney could have done a better job challenging the President’s $4 trillion deficit cutting breakdown or explaining where the President’s savings were or were not in health care.

Both candidates made statements that were not entirely true and larger, more specific questions about hard choices were not answered, if asked, and the candidates seem to be saying,”Here’s all you need to know.” That is not saying that Mitt Romney would not have been able to hold his own in a more sophisticated discussion, but he rarely had to try. Romney also pretty much succeeded in criticizing without being disrespectful. Whether President Obama, by being so low-key, was trying to remain higher than Romney in favorably, or likeability, ratings I don’t know, but real discourse about American domestic policy suffered.

While images are an important part of leadership, the debates tend to limit most of the discussion to those images.  Would our opinions of who won and lost be changed to some degree if the split screen were not employed?  I’m not suggesting that it not be used, but rather that its effect is another example of how we are influenced in our conclusions about who won a debate. Substance has a hard time triumphing over style, especially when a candidate is complicit.

For the people who work hard every day, for the people concerned about liberty, for the U.S. Armed Forces personnel who died or were wounded, for the people living in violent neighborhoods, for the homeowner who is trying to live up to her financial responsibility, is a debate like this one or one between Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008, doing them much justice?

Republicans since 2008 have been claiming that America bought style and image over substance. Democrats may be worried that they’ll be uttering the line after November 6th. But more importantly, are we as Americans substantially any more educated about how government works, about how capitalism works, and about the serious financial problems which confront our nation, or are we just closer to deciding who looks like a leader, this year?

Trisha’s Story

The world can move too fast.  President Barack Obama delivers one of the most important speeches of his Presidency and most folks, even the President, have already moved on.  But, if words have meaning and moments have impact, moving on from the speech is exactly what should not happen.  Not yet. 

33-year-old Trisha Urban will always remember his address.  The young Berks County, Pennsylvania, mother has three reasons to remember: Her late husband, Andrew; their baby girl, Cora; and the fact that Trisha was there.  She was sitting in the U.S. House Gallery, across the floor from First Lady Michelle Obama.  Senator Robert Casey invited her as his guest.  Casey had been moved by Trisha’s story.

It was 7 months ago. She and Andrew were awaiting the birth of their daughter.  Trisha’s water had broken and they were preparing to go to the hospital.  Andrew was taking out the trash and feeding the animals when he suffered a heart attack and died.  He was 30-year-old.  Cora was born a few hours after Andrew passed away.

Andrew knew he had a congenital heart defect and had been seeing doctors and for awhile had insurance through a university.  But Trisha says he had to take an internship to complete his doctorate and that the insurance company “found a loophole” and dropped their coverage.  Their medical bills began to pile up and Andrew skipped a doctor’s appontment to save money.  The young widow tells me off her husband’s passing, “His death seemed so senseless. I truly believe if the system were different and he’d gone to that last doctor’s appointment, he’d still be here today.”

Trisha sees truth in the President’s speech.  “When the President talked about the pre-existing conditions and was giving people’s testimony, I could definitely relate,” she says.  Adding, “(The address was) a wonderful and moving experience…It sent chills down my spine it was just so wonderful.”  She hopes it will dispel myths and misinformation.

When she heard Congressman Joe Wilson shout, “You lie,”  she says, “I thought to myself that…they need to set a better example.  It comes from the top to the bottom and the constituents are taking direction from the Congressmen and that particular Congressman needed to represent himself a little better.”  She says, “I would love to talk with them (members of Congress) face to face and tell them my story because what happens on Capitol Hill and what’s out there in the real world are two totally different worlds.  I hear my story over and over again.”

There were decisions made by Andrew and Trisha that affected what happened.  But, not to consider that they were affected by the system is to deny reality.  To deny a better system for those not in perfect health or in changing employment is to choose a harsh philosophy in the responsibilities of a wealthy society. 

In Trisha’s view, “It’s not about how much it will cost.  It’s about how much it will cost not to have health care reform.  Not only have I lost my husband, and I can’t put a price on life, my daughter has lost her father.  She now gets Social Security death benefits, survivor benefits.”  Trisha began softly breaking up as she told me, “My husband would have put more into the system than we are taking out now.” 

Ms. Urban has since her husband’s death worked as many as 4 jobs at once.  She is now down to 2, including a job in a nursing home and has started down a new career path. Trisha hopes to work in hospice care to try, in her words, “To make this event in my life something positive for somebody else.”

President Barack Obama’s speech is long over, but Trisha Urban will long remember.  It is her story all to easily unheard in a world that moves too fast.