Lessons from a debate
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Well, mostly the worst. Thursday night’s Presidential debate was hardly the event it was hyped up to be. Mitt Romney’s practiced zingers must’ve quietly rotted away as the incumbent President decimated his own performance by thoughtfully staring down at what might’ve been his notes, the cold wood of the lectern or ironically, the bleak future if he lost.
Romney has lied, retracted, blustered through his campaign and has more flip-flops to his name than a Hawaiian beach, and Thursday was no different. However, there was one crucial difference between last night and the past few months of horrendous bloopers and embarrassing moments for him: he looked good doing it. Prez O let him get away with lies, which is absolutely unforgivable. I can’t fathom the kind of strategy that will direct a Presidential candidate to keep staring at the lectern as his opponent packages untruths into slick made-for-TV soundbytes. Romney the consultant decimated Obama the professor. Certain articles mention that debating is not Obama’s strong point. He’s a Harvard Law graduate. Law. Aren’t they supposed to be good at debating?!
As I mulled over Obama’s disastrous turn, it occured to me that I had the opportunity to critique his performance because of the forum. The debate allowed Americans to scrutinize their future leaders, as they scrutinized each other’s policies. It allowed the people to get a good look at the men and women who aspire to occupy the highest office in the land, call themselves leaders of the free world. And in that harsh scrutiny stood out each candidate’s character – honest and thoughtful, or cunning, deceitful and petty. For example, when Romney petulantly demanded he be given the last word on a question, Obama had a fatherly, indulgent smile on his face as he gamely allowed Romney to proceed. This doesn’t just demonstrate the different strategies adopted by the candidates, it’s a window into the kind of people they are. Obama came across as a very thoughtful, pragmatic leader who takes his decisions very personally. He’s eager to defend his policies with an earnestness present only in people who truly believe what they’re saying. He’s also consensus-driven and over four years of determined efforts at developing a bipartisan approach, he now carries the disappointed look of someone betrayed.
I can’t vote in the US, but if I could, these are valuable inputs that could sway my decision. Do I vote for the academic who has sensible ideas but lacks the bluster and personality to push them through? Or should I vote for the slick liar who doesn’t think but does? (Of course, there’s no real choice in this case – I’ll go for the thinker because I’d rather have a stalemate economy than one which is buckling under the weight of five new wars.)
I can vote in India, though. Do I really know who my next Prime Minister is going to be? Do I know what she thinks of our foreign policy? What are her views on taxes? What about diffusing regional tensions? What India lacks is a forum like the US Presidential Debate to allow voters to see the true character of whom they’re voting for.
This is hardly an easy task.
First, India is divided along regional and communal lines. Parties exploit such factionalism by claiming to represent the interests of the latest new splinter group of disenfranchised voters. Janata Dal (Konkani Speaking Motorcycle Riders Division)? Not implausible. Thus, loyalties are mostly to political parties, not individuals. Individuals who make it to the top of this heap and command instant recall, are usually propelled by an army of sycophants who also employ local thugs for not very innovative, but forceful and effective marketing efforts (vote for bhabhiji or else…).
Individuals are also fickle. A colleague once pointed out the difference in rabidity of college football fans compared to those who supported NFL teams. His reasoning was simple – college players mostly play for their college so it makes sense to support individuals because you always know whom, and what they represent; NFL players are traded more frequently so there’s little reason to root for a team or individual with such fluid values. Similarly, it’s useless to assume a politician’s fealty to his current political party. To compound the problem we have too many political parties, each exploiting their own niche, resulting in no clear majority. This means a motley crew, many of whom we didn’t even vote for, eventually get together to form the government.
Second, undecided voter affiliations aren’t on the basis of manifestos or even intent, but on who dishes out the most freebies or adopts timely populist stances. This presents the problem of having undecided voters who aren’t swayed by information, but by handouts. Quite like buying an iPhone for free, but locking yourself into a four year contract (oh wait…).
Third, the selection of the PM is a political game fought after the elections, which is absolutely ridiculous! The selection is also out of the voters’ hands because they vote for the party and then the party decides who will lead it. In some cases there are clear leaders like Atal Vajpayee (my sincere apologies to Mr. Advani), but take the case of the 2004 General Elections. Who expected Manmohan Singh to become PM? A man who has never won an election himself is now the leader of the world’s largest democracy, his candidature sweetened with phrases like “Reforms of ’91”, “impeccable integrity”, “highly educated”, “thinker”. That’s all well but can this man lead a raucous coalition of entitled crybabies? The last four years have proven that he can’t. Had he stood face to face with other candidates, his diffident nature would’ve been clear for all to see.
Fourth, let’s say we even manage to agree on the possible PM candidates of each party. What’s going to happen when we get them together on a stage to debate each others’ political manifestos and records? I personally feel it’s going to devolve into a shouting match about scams. There’s hardly an untainted minister left in Indian politics and there’s always enough history to be used as cannon fodder.
In market research, it’s advisable to use scaled questions when asking people to rate things. Giving them choices of Yes or No inhibits nuance in their answers. That’s the accusation leveled at US politics where it’s always a Donkey-Elephant race with independents rarely making a dent (except in the case of Ross Perot who cornered 19% of the popular vote in the 1992 elections, effectively causing George Bush Sr’s candidacy to crumble). But India is the other extreme where the scale goes from 1-100. How do you choose the best when there’s so much choice it’s impossible to make one? How do you choose a leader when his selection is shrouded behind a secret curtain of political machinations?
Is it time to re-think how we elect our leaders? A simple 2-point scale is enough.