“Well, you’re right, which is why I disagree completely.”

Each week in Civil Discussion, Ben Bartlett (who majored in Political Theory) and Richard Clark (a political spectator who is friends with a guy who majored in Political Theory) discuss political events as they happen over email, hashing out the meaning and manipulations behind them. Also just being bros. 

Richard: Takeaways from Tuesday’s debate: Obama knew he had to be on fire, so he was. Romney knew he had to hang in there, so he did. The audience of regular people knew they had to act normal, so they looked very strange trying to act normal.

What about you?

Ben: Um… is it okay that I missed the debate?

I have good reasons. First, I was attending a church event. Second, when I got home I was watching my Detroit Tigers beat down the Yankees. And third, I find it annoying to watch grown men interrupt each other in their attempts to produce the most pithy statement while failing to state anything of substance.

I did plenty of reading about it afterward, though. First, Romney has clearly found his voice, and he had better double down on that for the last three weeks. Second, the most common reading of the debate was that these guys don’t like each other.

The result is perhaps one of the least silly campaigns (shocking, given the primaries and the way this thing started) in many years. Characters like George W. Bush, Al Gore, John McCain, and above all Sarah Palin have brought a little too much comedy to election time. This year, it looks like our candidates are a little too sharp for that stuff.

Well, except for Romney’s binder full of women.

Richard: Your reading probably didn’t convey the incredibly awkward tension that erupted when Barack and Mitt basically just started saying “Nuh uh” and “Yes huh” back and forth to one another. It probably didn’t drive home the impact of Mitt telling the President that he’ll have his turn and to sit back down.

Most people say the President won, and besides “obvious left-wing bias”, this is because Mitt came across as kind of a bully – not a good thing for a dude who’s been accused of holding down a kid and shaving off his hair in the schoolyard.

It seems like all this style stuff is the deciding factor in every single debate, and some of it seems genuinely valid. After all, voters are trying to figure out if Barack’s heart is even in this anymore. And we’re trying to decide if we can really trust Mitt Romney, like, as a person. For those questions, style can be a telling indicator, right?

Ben: Well, you’re right, which is why I disagree completely.

You’re right that style matters, but I think it’s ridiculous. For the vast majority of our presidents, style mattered very little. Only with the advent of television (that disgraceful medium) did style suddenly move to the fore. Can you see George Washington giving a prime-time speech with his false teeth clacking away? Or gangly Abraham Lincoln beating the handsome George McClellan in 1864 if their debates were televised? Or FDR trying to debate in a town hall format while confined to his wheelchair?

For me, a debate just shows whether you can focus for an hour and a half. A life history shows whether you can handle the highest-pressure job in the world.

Really, it’s amazing how much we trust our own perception based on limited sample size. I’m quite sure that if I laid out the resumes of these two guys and asked, “which one is more qualified for the Presidency at this moment in history, given our current economic situation?” then Mitt Romney would win in a landslide. And yet he is having an extremely tough time with independent voters simply because he can be insensitive, because he seems out of touch, and because he doesn’t seem likable… all things that would have been no problem before television. He’s a candidate for another era, trying to shoehorn himself into this one.

Are we stuck being led by telegenic people forever?

Richard: For me it’s not about whether you’re telegenic or have good teeth or are handsome. My worry with Romney ever since haircut-gate has been that he might be a completely un-empathetic jerk. That’s not a great quality for any kind of leader in my personal philosophy, so it matters to me if those concerns are reinforced time and time again.

I felt sorry for Romney with the binders of women thing, but the more I thought about it, the more that whole answer seemed kind of weird. Like, he literally couldn’t himself think of any worthy women candidates to offer jobs to? He had to hire a bunch of dudes to go out and do a woman search? The whole premise is just completely absurd, which I think is why the “binders of women” gaffe caught on.

Ben:  Okay, but you realize Romney was in high school, and that he’s now in his 60’s, right? Does a person not have an opportunity to grow out of things?

I think your reading of the “binders of women” is completely wrong. His wording was awkward and that makes it funny (especially in combination with his already-precarious standing with women), but he wasn’t making a point about HOW he brought women into his administration, he was making the point THAT there are overwhelming numbers of qualified positions and that he gives them the credit and opportunities they deserve.

Making judgments on fitness for the most difficult job in the world shouldn’t happen on the basis of whether a couple key mistakes, gaffes, or sins are brought to light. After all, let’s not forget that Obama has experimented with drugs, can’t seem to break his smoking habit, had radically liberal political beginnings, and can be incredibly pandering (remember the Beer Summit, or the time that he swore to show people that he knows how to get mad?). Those little moments are just tiny facets of a person’s whole person-hood, and I think it’s nuts that we view them as accurate windows into our leaders’ souls.

Richard: I feel like I should clarify that my concern isn’t that Romney did a bad thing once, but that Romney is still the same kind of guy that would do that sort of thing.

I am sure that Romney would love for that story to just say to people “look I hired lots of women,” at this point, but the fact is he went all into the process. He told us HOW.

You seem to imply that resume and factual things are all that matters about a presidential candidate. I think it’s a good idea to look at the whole person, including their general temperament and their fundamental life philosophy. Sometimes you can get that from their resume, but there are things these guys could be hiding that it helps to go digging for. I admit that the whole process seems nebulous, but I think we’ve probably dodged some presidential bullets in the past (oh look I just triggered a CIA search filter thing) by weeding out some of the more untenable personalities.

Ben: Well, I agree about wanting to know their fundamental life philosophy, but I disagree about whether these minuscule snippets of information tell us that. Again, I fail to see how a guy in his 60s who humiliated another kid in high school is somehow fundamentally worse than a guy in his 50s who broke the law and tried drugs in college.

I also disagree with your characterization (and understanding) of Romney’s, “binders of women,” story, but I suppose we’ll just have to accept our differences on that one.

Whatever the case, I think it’s correct to say that a Presidential election is an important opportunity for all of us to think carefully about the values we demand from our leaders, and the methods we use to evaluate whether potential leaders have those values. I’m certainly enjoying hashing that stuff out with you!


  1. Okay guys, I think I’m going with Bartlett in this debate. He won hands done. (Sorry Rich.)

    First, the “binders full of women” thing is funny as a sound bite, but as a strategy for hiring, what is the problem with that? I know a certain web magazine *ahem*, that would like to get more women writers who share their ideals. What if the CEO of that web-magazine wanted others to help find writers? What would be wrong with gathering binders of women…eerrr…resumes of recommended candidates?

    Second, I really have to question the entire “Romney is an unempathic jerk” story line. Did you see how much the man gave to charity compared to his opponents? Compared to..you know.. anybody? Plus, we are in terrible financial straights right now. Terr-i-ble. I think it is good to have a guy who can fire folks without hand-wringing in an environment where budget cuts are necessary. My point is that while he may not “feel our pain” like the current President claims to, he is benevolent enough. And frankly, we need a guy who can cut folks loose if he has to. That’s the difference in being a CEO and a volunteer organizer.

    Before this debate, I was an undecided. I have definitely swung Bartlett now. Rich, it isn’t too late though!

  2. For the record, none of this is me trying to make a case, but simply wrestling outwardly with my concerns post-debate. I do have serious concerns about some of Romney’s missteps that fall into that jerk-narritive. There are 3 big ones:

    1. His RESPONSE to the schoolyard incedent.
    2. His response to the situation in Libya.
    3. His 47% comments.

    As for binders full of women, you make a good enough point. Still, it’s worth noting that the whole story Romney told isn’t exactly true: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker/post/fact-checking-romneys-binders-full-of-women-anecdote/2012/10/18/42f4cd38-18cb-11e2-9855-71f2b202721b_blog.html

    Also, it offered no systemic solution for the kind of problem the story itself acknowledges.

  3. I’m with Rich on this one!

    Because of all the anti-women accusations being leveled at the GOP, Romney should have seen this as an opportunity to reach out to female voters on a big issue–equal pay (which, I might add, his running mate doesn’t have a great record on). Instead, his answer had absolutely nothing to do with equal pay, and said nothing about what he would do as President to help women in the workplace. As a result, what he did say is absolutely irrelevant to me.

    Perhaps Romney simply expects to “lead by example” and hopes that now others will create binders full of women so that equal pay initiatives aren’t necessary? Discouraging.

  4. Rich,

    What was wrong with Romney’s response to Libya? How is it worse than President Obama’s? I, for one, think the President’s response is the most irresponsible foreign policy debacle I’ve ever known of. Why didn’t they make it clear that this was a straight up terrorist attack? Secondly, by allowing everyone to run with the video narrative, they not only globally exacerbated the situation, they caused actual protests.

    The 47% comment doesn’t bother me. Do I think he should have said it? No, it sounds rather defeatist to me. But it has no bearing on my vote.


    The anti-woman accusations, as far as I can tell, mostly revolve around the Republican position on women’s rights regarding abortion. On that front, they should say that they are very much in favor of women’s rights, that is why they are trying to save 500,000 or so a year. I see that Planned Parenthood was responsible for 332,000 in 2009. Which is another bone of contention, I know. They provide services for the poor, but not mammograms, as it was erroneously claimed. So should the Republicans have something in place if they defund Planned Parenthood? Yes, probably so. But hey, why not just outlaw abortion and let Planned Parenthood do the rest of the things they do?

    Finally, I would just ask what is wrong with leading by example? Do we need more laws that say what employers have to pay certain employees? I certainly do not think so. If businesses don’t pay their talented employees, regardless of race or gender, they will ultimately suffer because someone should hire them away. I mean, a law might be in order if it is so systemic that women cannot break through the glass ceiling, but that would be a tough tightrope to walk. By that, I mean not everyone knows what everyone else makes, and if someone is getting paid more than someone else, how do we know it is discrimination?

  5. The trouble with the equal pay thing is that it isn’t necessarily true anymore. Not only are women quickly overwhelming men in almost every educational category, they’re doing so in the workplace as well. See Hannah Rosin’s “The End of Men” for details. But the wage “gap” isn’t a function of discriminating employers, it tends to be a function of job characteristics. http://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2012/04/16/its-time-that-we-end-the-equal-pay-myth/

  6. Richard Clark,

    Yeah, it would have been true, perhaps, but politically disastrous. Even if pay has pretty much evened out, and I have no idea whether that is true, but even if it has the perception is there that it isn’t. So if he had said that, it would have made him look bad.

    So he did about as good as he could if he knew those facts. He shouldn’t promise to fix something that isn’t broken, and he can’t say there’s no problem if there is a public perception that it is, especially if he is already getting hammered on women’s rights issues. Leading by example is the best thing he could have done for an answer. My two cents.

  7. FASHUN!!

    Just kidding.

    Ben, the article you provided on the wage gap issue didn’t really convince me. She cited statistics that explained 25% of the wage gap, but everything else was anecdotal. Besides, isn’t “number of hours worked” becoming irrelevant as we’re increasingly connected to our jobs 24/7 through phones, tablets, computers, etc?

    The wage gap (and other gender discrimination issues) hit home with me and I don’t think they’re close to resolution, both through looking at evidence and through personal experience. I certainly hope Romney is right that workplaces will see talented and educated women and compensate them accordingly. However, I don’t think it will happen without some legislative nudge.

    Hannah Rosin was just at the LFPL but I missed it.

  8. Lauren, here’s another article, and this one contains a link to a statistical study done for the Department of Labor.


    I’d definitely be curious, though, to hear if you have any personal experience on this issue. As for me, I’ve worked in the federal government in Washington DC, the state government in Lansing, MI, a private high school, an energy consulting company, and two health insurance companies. In ALL of those situations, the pay guidelines were very clearly laid out and women and men received equal pay for equal work. Further, because much of the work in my area demands high levels of consistency and attention to detail, far more women are hired into our department than men from the get-go.

    Number of hours worked is not irrelevant because many jobs are still paid hourly. When those jobs offer overtime, in general men are more likely to take on those overtime hours or weekend hours or holiday hours, according to the studies. Further, in many professions hours worked tends to correlate to promotions.

    My example here would be a friend of mine from college. She moved up extremely fast in her company, and if she and I had started at the same place in the same company I can guarantee she would now be far, far above me in responsibility and pay scale. The reason is that she works extreme hours, and that is noticed and rewarded by the company. Meanwhile, I have a wife and kids to take care of, and my unwillingness to commit as completely as my friend would have slowed my progression up the ladder. So then, am I not being given equal pay for equal work? Or have my friend’s choices and my choices led to a sort of self-selection?

    Anyways, I agree it’s a tough issue. And I do not deny that there are places where discrimination exists, and that is unfortunate and should be challenged. But that’s not quite the same thing as insisting that women at all levels should be paid more to compensate for their tendency to make economic choices with more than money in mind.

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