By Matt Michaloski ‘14
For the first Presidential debate on October 3, 2012, over 100 Wabash students—and a few faculty and staff—gathered in Hays 104 for live steaming and post-debate analysis. The event was hosted by Rhetoric Professors Sara and Jeff Drury, who challenged students to analyze the debate from the perspective of rhetoric as well as politics. Dr. Sara Drury introduced several questions for students to keep in mind while listening: What are your expectations for the debate; what do you expect the candidates to say or do? What do you already know about each candidate? What are you seeking to find out about each candidate during the debate?
Students then settled in to watch President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney debate, and debate they did. Viewers were treated to an hour and a half of high caliber, fast paced, heart-pounding political action. Topics ranged from job creation, to improvements in education, to trimming the budget, helping the trade deficit, boosting small business, fixing healthcare, and the healing power of good old-fashioned American grit. Big conflicts arose on the topics of cutting taxes vs. covering the bill for America’s investments in education and debt reduction, prioritizing energy independence over investment in green energy, the merits of state or federal regulation, and the need for government regulation in health care.
As soon as the debate ended, Professors Drury invited students to share the expectations they developed before the debate and how well these were met. This list included the clarification of policies, appeals to the people, personal anecdotes, question dodging, campaign slogans, hostility, outright lies, impasse, and division. It was agreed that these dismal expectations were largely met. Dr. Sara Drury offered the opinion that the presidential debate provides the chance for a “joint appearance” of the candidates, which is more important than the specific policies that are addressed briefly in rapid succession. In the discussion that followed, sophomore Nick Freeman offered the idea that since the candidates’ platforms can easily be found online and in print, the primary goal of the televised debate is to express the candidates’ political principles to the public. These ideas seemed to represent the general mood of the group assembled, many of whom indicated skepticism about the specific figures and predictions given by the candidates.
Other topics of conversation included satisfaction that the debate focused heavily on improving education, but dissatisfaction that it did not address immigration policy. A long conversation arose on the candidates’ demeanor and poise and whether or not this should impress audiences in addition to the substance of their arguments. The moderator of the debate garnered lots of conversation as well. The meek Jim Lehrer was walked all over by both candidates, neither of whom wanted to be brief with their answers. Students suggested this was to be expected and allowed the candidates to prove their force of character, a kind of oratorical strategy that proves they will not show weakness when dealing with foreign leaders and gainsayers.
All in all, the event provided an excellent opportunity for Wallies to engage in the political process and discuss the rhetoric that runs through it. Every chair in the room was filled, and those present offered intelligent comments and thoughtful feedback.