Misulonas: A tale of two debates


Joseph Misulonas, Columnist

It was clear after watching last week’s presidential debate that President Obama lost. While Mitt Romney avoided presenting any specifics on his plans and dodged questions about regulation and taxes, he came off as the more energetic and forceful debater and put Obama on the ropes defending his policies.

With two more debates remaining between Obama and Romney and one between the two vice presidential candidates, the Democrats are going to have to reevaluate their debate strategy and figure out a way to avoid a similar result.

I have two words of advice for President Obama: Jon Stewart.

If you don’t know who Jon Stewart is, you’re either my grandma or someone my grandma forwarded this column to. He is the host of the comedy news program “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central. On Saturday, Stewart outlined and defended a progressive course for our nation in a debate against Bill O’Reilly. The debate was called “The Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium.”

It would be unfair to compare O’Reilly’s and Stewart’s performances. Stewart is a professional comedian who makes his living by thinking up quick zingers, while O’Reilly is a journalist (in the loosest definition of the word) who reads off a teleprompter night after night, even though conservatives have taken a hardline anti-prompter stance this election.

It should also be unfair to compare the president, a professional politician who has spent his life arguing politics, to Stewart, who has spent his perfecting his Jerry Lewis impersonation. After watching both debates, however, it’s clear to me that Jon Stewart is better than the president himself at defending Obama’s own administration.

Clearly, the president understands policy better than Stewart and has a better grasp of what the problems are and how to solve them. The difference is that Stewart knows people. It’s his job. He knows people don’t want to hear about how a subsidy to an environmental technologies firm will help decrease our dependency on crude oil by 5.8 percent in 2018. People want to know the beliefs behind why that policy proposal should be enacted. Despite his questionable facts, Romney won last week’s debate because he appeared more genuine and passionate.

Stewart attacked the Republican idea that people are “entitled.” He argued that our nation is made stronger by the social safety net and the programs that help the poor achieve a level of income stability. Where was that from President Obama? The President is fully aware that this election is about an ideological battle between our two parties. He has shown ads attacking Romney’s proposals to cut taxes for millionaires and Paul Ryan’s budget for cutting entitlements and government programs that benefit the poor. Yet, when it came time for the debate (the nationally televised chance for you to make your case to the nation), he didn’t defend the progressive course of action. Instead, he tried to offer his “pragmatic” (more like boring) solutions to our problems.

There was a wonderful moment in the “The Rumble” when Stewart mentioned Kim Rhodes, a U.S. Women’s Olympic Champion in shooting, who spoke at the Republican National Convention about how women won more golds in the 2012 Olympics than ever before. Stewart then pointed out that had the government not passed Title IX in 1972, a piece of legislation that required colleges to increase funding for and participation in women’s sports, the achievements of many female athletes may never have been accomplished.

It’s those types of human interest arguments that are going to win over voters. Romney can always point to the growing budget deficit and government spending to argue in favor of major spending cuts. President Obama has to make the case that government programs have had a positive and beneficial influence on the economy and the lives of Americans.

Obama needs to take a page out of Stewart’s playbook, lay off the policy-driven talking points and make a more passionate plea in favor of the progressive vision, because if he loses this November, Democrats won’t be laughing anymore.

Joseph Misulonas is a Medill junior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, email a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].