Bill Clinton Forced Obama and Romney to Debate Real Issues


In what seems like annals of the perpetually updating 2012 campaign, President Bill Clinton broke new rhetorical ground by treating Americans like adults. It's interesting that he treated us like adults by talking about arithmetic, but you can't subtract from the point that his DNC address bore a kind of straight-talk long absent from the national stage. Since Clinton's breakthrough speech, each of the four debates was marked for their deluge of facts and figures, numbers and theories, bullet-point plans and studies. Should all this be taken to mean the 2012 campaign is smarter than its predecessors?

There's a wonky part of me that enjoys the back-and-forth we saw in each debate, and this part of me appreciated initially the appearance of nuanced, clashing debate. With the number of foibles and flubs and gaffes, we're now accustomed to seeing candidates distance themselves from unsuccessful tactics and figures. So while it's validating to see and hear complicated talking points, it's when we see models of success in political campaigns that we should become most alert. I'm afraid the debates allowed the competing campaigns to transmute Clinton's breakthrough into an opportunity to show the "appearance" of presenting voters with more complicated information.

What I mean is that the candidates seem uninterested in making their case on the backs of facts, figures and theories. Despite the frequency of their use, it seems unlikely either candidate or many of their supporters would trumpet their cause on the basis of their factual accuracy. I certainly don't try to make the case for my candidate by lecturing my friends and providing them a follow-up reading list. We vote for who we think is right, and the threshold for what it means to be right contains far more than data points.

Rather, the success of President Clinton's speech has set up wonky talking points as a requirement on the campaign trail. It is important for the candidate to show that he has something to back his platitudes. In this way, facts and figures are not a tool of persuasion, but a box to check. Similar to how our candidate must have an American Flag lapel pin (a relatively recent requirement), a story of overcoming hardship, a a Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School, and executive experience, the candidate must have a core set of facts and figures.

Where using arithmetic was a way for Clinton to make a case to all voters, the wonky lines we saw in debates are a tactic meant to defuse the other side. Aside from wearing the symbolism of an American Flag lapel pin, part of its placement is to preemptively strike down the argument from the opposition that the candidate is un-American. The paradox here is that wearing a flag pin prevents discussion of the reason why candidates wear flag pins. So too is it the case with facts and figures. When they become a box to check, we're heading towards a future in which the prodigious use of facts and figures becomes reason not talk about the use of facts and figures.